Undercover cops secretly use smartphones, face recognition to spy on crowds

A Florida intelligence officer admitted that undercover police were mingling with the public, using their smartphones to take videos and photos to spy on “suspicious” citizens. Then the undetected cops could determine a person’s name by checking the image against a facial recognition database. That is precisely what happened at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, according to a report from the National Journal

Undercover police use smartphones and facial recognition on public

An undercover cop can often be spotted in a crowd due to wearing an earpiece or talking into a microphone hidden under his or her sleeve. But by using smartphones and tablets loaded with specialized apps, these same undercover officers mingled with demonstrators, took photos and transmitted “real-time video of protesters as they moved about the streets.” Sgt. Dale Moushon, with the Intelligence Unit of the St. Petersburg Police Department, told the National Journal, “Everyone has a phone, so officers blend in easier.”

He also pointed to an instance in which an officer was preparing to take a picture of a suspicious person so staff could use facial-recognition software to identify the person. Instead, the person happened to pull out a document that included his identifying information that was then captured in real-time by the officer’s live video feed. “That saved us a lot of time,” Moushon said.

The live video from smartphones fed into the 2012 RNC surveillance system which also included 94 “high-definition cameras connected via a wireless network. 31 are fixed-point and about 63 surveillance cameras have pan/tilt/zoom capabilities that can be remotely aimed and zoomed in to 20x optical." Each CCTV included a geographic tag. All video captured from those cameras will be stored for four years. It’s also becoming more common for networked computers with artificial intelligence, behavioral recognition software, to monitor the public for abnormal behavior. Tampa local web developer Jon Gales was the watcher watching the watchers as the system was installed. Gales then mapped the high definition CCTV cameras and created a mobile app called RNCCTV.

Big brother surveillance

The FCC granted special permission to test the “interoperable network that used technology from several private companies” in Tampa. The National Journal reported that this surveillance network “was part of an effort to eventually develop a similar $7 billion National Public Safety Broadband Network for everyday use across the country.” This “next-generation broadband network” can send “highly secure, encrypted voice, video, and data communications, as well as an evidence-quality, permanent recording of all data collected.” The ACLU questioned if this new National Public Safety Broadband Network  is actually a "tool for a domestic secret police?"

Admitting to infiltrating the protesters and planning to run a smartphone photo against facial recognition is a big deal. The FBI started rolling out a $1 billion face recognition project, but even social media like Facebook is in the facial recognition ballgame. The EFF warned us that many Americans are in face recognition databases right now even if they don’t know it. If you’ve never done anything “wrong,” don’t attend protests, don’t have a passport, and can’t imagine being in a face recognition database, then stop to think about your driver’s license. If you have one, then yes your face is most likely in a database. Or it soon will be.

“Preventing terrorists from obtaining state-issued identification documents is critical to securing America against terrorism,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. “As the 9/11 Commission noted, ‘For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons’.” Verifying a person’s identity is the purpose behind secure driver’s licenses, also called REAL ID. In theory, it will prevent fraud and identity theft. All states are supposed to comply with REAL ID by January 15, 2013.

There are 18 REAL ID benchmarks, some which you might be aware, but DMVs ask people not to smile and show their teeth for the “facial image capture.” That is because the image must be compatible with facial recognition software. These photos are fed into facial recognition databases used by law enforcement agencies. This happened in March 2011 in Florida where, for example, an undercover cop planned to take a picture of a protester and use face recognition to determine the “suspicious” person’s identity.

The ACLU previously embraced "reverse surveillance" and released a “stealthy” Android app called Police Tape so citizens can secretly record the cops. “It also speaks to the notion that, anywhere, any time — whether it’s by a police department’s security camera or a motorist’s cell phone — everyone can be recorded.” The New Jersey ACLU said, "Police often videotape civilians and civilians have a constitutionally protected right to videotape police. When people know they’re being watched, they tend to behave well."

So in Tampa, was turnabout fair or foul play? While citizens may be able to record the police, the majority of us don’t have handy access to facial recognition databases at our fingertips to verify a cop’s identity. According to the ACLU, “We shouldn’t just accept that undercover police will infiltrate peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, photograph them, and use face recognition or other techniques to identity them. We must not come to accept the existence of a secret police in our society.”

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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