Miami-Dade Cops Want Permanent Access to Controversial Facial Recognition Database

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez
Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez Photo by Miami-Dade Police Department
Since 2001, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) has operated one of the largest facial recognition databases in America. Numerous police departments statewide have opted into accessing the information. However, it doesn't seem to work that well: In 2016, studies warned that the database could produce false positives, was "ripe for misuse and abuse," and operated with little to no oversight.

Now the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD), the largest police force in Florida, wants to access the technology.

According to documents filed with the county's Public Safety and Rehabilitation Committee, MDPD wants to enter into a permanent memorandum of agreement with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's department to use its Face Analysis Comparison and Examination System — also known as FACES.

"Technology drives much of today's innovation and advancements in law enforcement," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote in a memo to the public-safety board. "It also provides the foundation for day-to-day operations such as criminal background histories for critical information sharing. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office maintains the largest collaborative, open-model face recognition system in the United States and exclusively hosts Florida's Facial Recognition Network (FR-Net)."

Gimenez wrote that MDPD plans to use the database to "perform automated facial recognition searches and face-image comparisons," as well as to help police forensic artists create composite sketches of potential suspects. The memo states Capt. Gustavo Duarte, who also helps oversee the department's body-camera program, will monitor MDPD's use of facial recognition systems.

Importantly, MDPD has gained access to the FACES network over the years for a host of regular functions: According to publicly available documents, PCSO in 2013 gave a presentation outlining it had already been partnering with MDPD's forensic artists to investigate possible crimes. The new memorandum would create a permanent legal partnership between Miami-Dade and Pinellas to use the system.

As of 2016, 243 police departments in Florida already had access to Pinellas County's database, which pulls photos from driver's license databases and other publicly available data sets. But in the unlikely event that Miami-Dade commissioners decline to approve the memo, it could curtail MDPD's ability to wantonly use one of the most controversial new areas of law-enforcement technology.

Much like the department's failed attempt in 2017 to fly surveillance cameras mounted on Cessna planes over Miami-Dade, the move is certain to upset privacy advocates. Critics for years have warned that facial recognition technology is advancing far faster than legislators are able to monitor or regulate it — and that the technology can easily misidentify people or accidentally stereotype based on race.

In 2018, Orlando Weekly wrote that the Orlando Police Department had quietly begun using Rekognition, a facial-scanning program from Amazon that can allegedly hunt for and locate people using live security-camera footage. Amazon's description for the product says users simply need to upload photos of the people they want to find. But studies have warned that Rekognition is bad at identifying dark-skinned women, for example. Moreover, civil rights advocates warn that similar programs subject entire cities of people to needless, possibly harmful, and potentially unconstitutional searches by the government — usually without those people knowing they're being watched.

Pinellas County's database has also been subject to regular criticism. In 2016, the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center warned that Pinellas' facial recognition guidelines did not say cops even needed to have "reasonable suspicion of a crime" in order to search for someone in the database. Also, a 2012 study showed the system was worse at identifying people of color, women, and people aged 18 to 30. In 2018, Orlando Weekly reported FACES was less effective when suspects had aged, had a twin, grew facial hair, had gotten plastic surgery, or were simply wearing sunglasses.

Yet for years, the system has been largely unmonitored. Cops reportedly make more than 8,000 FACES searches per month, but PCSO conducts virtually no audits to test the accuracy of the system. Earlier this year, the Orlando Sentinel reported that 17 federal agencies — including the FBI and ICE — also were using FACES to hunt for people.

In 2016, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office used FACES to investigate a $50 purchase of crack cocaine by uploading photos of the transaction to the system. It claimed a man named Willie Allen Lynch was the perpetrator. Lynch was convicted but is still appealing his case, along with the American Civil Liberties Union. In January, a Florida court ruled Lynch had no right to see the photos that cops claim matched him to the drug deal.

Miami-Dade County's Public Safety and Rehabilitation Committee will review the proposed agreement at its November 13 meeting. The full county commission would need to approve the memorandum afterward in order for MDPD to gain permanent access to the system.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.