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The Debate Over Facial Recognition Technology's Role In Law Enforcement


This week, the use of facial recognition technology has been up for debate. In two states - Utah and Vermont - documents acquired by Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology show Immigrations and Customs Enforcement used driver's license photos to try to identify people in the country illegally. Utah officials say they only complied with a small number of ICE requests tied to specific criminal cases. Vermont officials say they stopped using facial recognition software in 2017. But the technology is used across law enforcement.

Lieutenant Derek Sabatini of the LA County Sheriff's Department joins us now to talk about how it's useful in policing. Lieutenant Sabatini, welcome to the program.


CORNISH: A major concern is that this use of the technology is a kind of dragnet - right? - that innocent people can be caught up in. How does LA County use facial recognition technology?

SABATINI: Well, LA County has been using facial recognition technology since 2009. The facial recognition technology has recently been grouped into - or hasn't been separated, and everything has been kind of thrown into surveillance. It's been an investigative tool in Los Angeles County. And what we do is we utilize still images from criminals or from crime scenes, and we take that of individuals.

And we take those probe images, and we compare them to the database of booking photos. So we take criminal crime scene images and compare them to criminals in order to develop leads. And one of the other things that people also mistake is identification. You'll hear it used all the time about, well, the facial recognition - it identifies individuals. It doesn't identify anybody. It's an investigative lead.

CORNISH: Can I jump in here - because people have raised concerns about essentially access to civilian databases like the DMV. Do you consider that useful, or was this a mistake?

SABATINI: For our purposes, to keep it separate and cleaner and easier to - for public consumption, we only use criminal database. We don't use public databases. We don't use face - DMV. In the state of California, we don't have access to the DMV, nor do we request access. And we also don't have or utilize any databases of social media. There's no data mining or going out and surfing the net and collecting, you know, open source data.

So no, it's easier when it's - and it's also easy to govern. So in California, we have what we call CORI. It's criminal offender record information. And it's the laws that govern the use of criminal offender records. We - you need to have a right to know and a need to know. And it also identifies penalties for misuse of that information. And that prevents people from...

CORNISH: You're talking about a lot of the limits and borders in preventing this technology from being abused. And I know the debate over facial recognition is very heated in California. San Francisco has banned its use. Other cities are considering bans. Does that worry you?

SABATINI: It does worry me a little bit as - 'cause what it does is it prevents the technology or the tool, the law enforcement tool, from being utilized in identifying criminals. So it does have a public safety - a risk of affecting public safety 'cause it has been successfully used.

CORNISH: That's Lieutenant Derek Sabatini of the LA Sheriff's Department. Thank you for speaking with us.

SABATINI: Great, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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