Seattle Police To Buy Facial Recognition Software — Should Citizens Be Worried?

Mar 12, 2014

Following a decision by the Seattle City Council this week, the Seattle Police Department will soon use facial recognition software. 

The ACLU of Washington doesn't think the move will encroach on citizens' rights, but privacy advocates, including Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, aren’t fond of the new policy.

With a 7-to-1 vote, the city council on Monday approved the purchase of technology that can recognize a face in an image from, say, a surveillance camera, then scan more than 667,000 booking photos for a match.

Funding for the software is included in a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

Why The ACLU Gave Its Blessing

It took a revision of Seattle police policy to win the ACLU of Washington's blessing for the purchase of the software.

At the ACLU's urging, department officials decided officers would be limited to using the facial recognition technology only to identify "a person whom an officer reasonably suspects may be involved in criminal activity."

ACLU of Washington spokesperson Doug Honig says revisions to the policy for will prevent officers from conducting "fishing expeditions," or going after innocent people without any reason to believe they did anything wrong.

"What we want to make sure is that in the process of solving crimes, they don't abuse their powers in some situations to interfere with peoples' rights," said Honig, pointing out Seattle police will have to maintain records of the technology's use and audit themselves every year.

Critics: Not Enough Safeguards In Place

But some privacy advocates worry the revised rule won't be enough to ensure proper use of the software. 

"My concern is that this is not a problem that can be solved with good intentions," said Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, the lone vote against the proposal.

Phil Mocek, a citizen rights advocate who co-founded the Seattle Privacy Coalition, says there are still loopholes in the policy. For instance, he worries police might stretch the boundaries of what constitutes “suspected criminal activity.”

Mocek fears police might "identify people in a crowd who are reasonably suspected of some innocuous crime like pedestrian interference.”

“These are the kinds of crimes people are accused of when police want to clear out a political demonstration,” he said. "These systems can be used in ways that really make us less free."

In addition to the facial recognition software, the federal funding will also finance rescue equipment and officer training.

Watch video of the Seattle City Council meeting: