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Police body cams are becoming powerful surveillance state assets

by Sam Rolley

The addition of facial recognition and other artificial intelligence to police body cameras is making it easier for agencies to compile massive databases of Americans’ biometric information.

Police departments throughout the country have introduced body cam policies in recent years in an effort to protect citizens and officers in the event that an encounter turns violent or involves constitutional abuses. And while the cameras have been praised by police accountability advocates, civil liberties groups are becoming increasingly concerned about how police agencies use the information gathered by the cameras.

With the advent of technologies that make the cameras more effective for banking and sorting the visual data gathered as police go about their daily activities, officers are becoming walking eyes for the surveillance state.

Consider this report out Friday from Vocativ:

Taser, the stun gun company that has recently become an industry leader in body-mounted cameras, announced the creation of its own in-house artificial intelligence division. The new unit will utilize the company’s acquisition of two AI-focused firms: Dextro, a New York-based computer vision startup, and Misfit, another computer vision company previously owned by the watch manufacturer Fossil. Taser says the newly formed division will develop AI-powered tech specifically aimed at law enforcement, using automation and machine learning algorithms to let cops search for people and objects in video footage captured by on-body camera systems.

Moreover, the move suggests that body-worn cameras, which are already being used by police departments in many major cities, could soon become powerful surveillance tools capable of identifying different objects, events, and people encountered by officers on the street — both retroactively and in real time.

With policies in place for law enforcement information sharing, this means that the body cams worn by local cops could ultimately add to the federal government’s surveillance database.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation last summer revealed how the FBI is already working on a massive facial recognition program which is largely shielded from key privacy rules:

According to the GAO Report, FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services unit not only has access to FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) face recognition database of nearly 30 million civil and criminal mug shot photos, it also has access to the State Department’s Visa and Passport databases, the Defense Department’s biometric database, and the drivers license databases of at least 16 states. Totaling 411.9 million images, this is an unprecedented number of photographs, most of which are of Americans and foreigners who have committed no crimes.

Ultimately, the facial recognition technology could possibly lead to increased scrutiny of pedestrians with prior arrest records or other potential red flags in officer databases as they traverse public areas.

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