SEATTLE - Seattle police just won approval to use facial recognition software. But privacy advocates say that endangers the privacy of every Seattle citizen. Critics fear sophisticated software that can capture images of people on the move, then use a vast database to instantly identify them. Seattle police have a more modest plan -- comparing mug shots to surveillance video, using technology paid for by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
“It could not be used to ID citizens who are not either actively involved in a criminal process or that the officer did not reasonably suspect was involved in criminal activity,” said city councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
But in the face of controversies over the police access to surveillance cameras, and the special Wi-Fi network they also got a federal grant to install. So privacy advocates are skeptical.
“As we've learned the NSA and the FBI will gain access to any hardware that you install whether you want to or not,” said Lee Colton.
Supporters say using facial recognition software simple automates what police now do by hand. But critics say that automation is the problem.
“It vastly increases the amount of pursuing individuals who may be not quite so suspicious, not quite such clear suspects who are really less valuable leads for them and yet now they have time to do that,” said David Robinson of the Seattle Privacy Coalition.
Public Safety Chair Bruce Harrell tailored the program to win approval from the American Civil Liberties Union and says the City Council will be watching closely.
“We will keep a record as to who and why, who uses the data base and software and why,” Harrell said.
The Department of Homeland Security grant is $1.6 million and covers other training and assistance programs for the police and fire departments. The council voted 7-1 to accept it. Council member Kshama Sawant voted no.