DES MOINES — Each of the more than 5,600 registered sex offenders in Iowa could soon have their photos digitized and saved to a database that law enforcement officials could then match to everything from security camera images to Facebook photos with a few mouse clicks.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety is in the middle of a program to equip every Iowa sheriff’s department with an electronic signature pad, laptop computer and digital camera that can support the high-resolution data to feed through facial recognition software.
“Biometrics is really coming up to play a big part in law enforcement and investigations and things like that,” said Terry Cowman, special agent in charge of the state’s sex offender registry program.
“What’s interesting about facial rec is it is kind of the future of where we’re at.”
He has about $110,000 to pay for the hardware through a federal grant. Now he’s seeking another $180,000 to pay for the software and training that would allow the state to digitize roughly 10,000 photos, but he won’t receive word on the grant until spring.
Still, the move to digitize and analyze faces of sex offenders has some concerned about what comes next.
“You always start with sex offenders because nobody is going to stick up for sex offenders,” said Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, a lawyer who chairs the House Judiciary committee. “The question is where it goes from there.”
Facial recognition software is a key part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s $1 billion Next Generation Identification program and the reason Facebook can suggest a photo ID on a mobile phone upload.
More than a decade ago, the city of Tampa, Fla., piloted a facial recognition system that scanned faces of people in crowds and compared them to photos of criminals in their database. The program ran for about two years and was scrapped in 2003.
“Sex offenders don’t have the same rights as other people because they already have been convicted of a crime,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dealing with convicts makes it easier for government to get around civil liberties concerns than if it, say, wanted to run a recognition scan on everyone who had their picture taken for a driver’s license or other form of state photo identification, Stone said.
Chris Sumner, co-founder and secretary of the U.K.-based Online Privacy Foundation, focuses most of his work on the type of data people voluntarily share online through applications such as Facebook and Twitter and how that data is repackaged and sold.
But, he said, some of the concerns are the same.
“There’s this gradual reduction of this right to privacy that doesn’t seem to be debated,” he said. “We need to have an informed discussion on what is possible. People on the street just don’t have the knowledge.”
What is possible?
Two weeks ago, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson and Drew Collins traveled to Des Moines for a state sheriff’s association meeting.
Drew is the father of Elizabeth, an 8-year-old girl whose body was discovered in a wooded area in rural Bremer County on Dec. 5, months after she and her cousin, 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrissey, disappeared after going on a bike ride in Evansdale. Lyric’s body was found in the same area.
Drew had a printout of all the sex offenders in the state who have not kept authorities up to date on their whereabouts as the law requires.
“He wanted to share that information with them,” Thompson said. “It was something that we hoped they could pass around and share with their officers.”
Thompson said he can see the advantage of facial recognition tools, but he doesn’t think it would have helped in the case of the missing cousins.
“We had hours and hours of surveillance tape,” Thompson said. “Nothing.”
Scott County Sheriff Detective Peter Bawden oversees that county’s sexual offender registry. On any given day, he has 600 or so people on the list.
He said more and more of his time is now devoted to making sure registered sex offenders aren’t contacting people through social media applications. He recently caught one, he said, who was using a fake name to reach out to a former victim through Facebook.
He sees facial recognition as the next step, and an appropriate one. He thinks the privacy concerns are overblown.
“I’m just speaking for myself and not on the behalf of the department,” Bawden said. “These are the same things they probably heard back when fingerprints came out. It’s the same arguments I remember hearing in the ’90s when DNA started coming out; it’s the same argument now.”
Cowen acknowledges that if the department is able to get the software for the sex offender program, it’s quite possible it would grow.
“We could not say this couldn’t be moved to mugshots or other information databases because that could only enhance the tool for detectives,” he wrote in an email response to a question on privacy concerns.
“This software would not be used for general use or civil priorities but only to give detectives an additional tool to use to further investigations.
“The information gleaned from a template match could be used for further leads in many types of criminal cases.”