Missouri courthouse becomes test site for facial recognition security program

02/24/2014 7:02 AM

02/24/2014 7:02 AM

It took three minutes for James Palmer to make it from the entrance of an Arkansas courthouse to the chambers of the judge he intended to kill.

Dressed in a long coat that hid two handguns and a rifle, Palmer went undetected on Sept. 13, 2011 — until he started firing. A secretary was injured in the leg, but the judge was at home that day. Palmer fired more than 70 rounds before dying in a firefight with officers.

St. Louis judges considered such a scenario in approving a pilot program for security at the Carnahan Courthouse downtown that brings a new twist to law enforcement’s emerging use of facial recognition technology.

Unlike programs that have alarmed civil libertarians for snapping pictures of people to run through giant databases of mugshots and arrest records, what’s being done here is much more targeted.

If a judge or prosecutor knows of a particular threat — someone such as Palmer, for example, who was angry at the judge over divorce and custody issues — that individual’s photograph is put into a computer system. It sends an alert if that person is spotted by cameras at the courthouse entrances.

A group of current and retired St. Louis police officers developed the technology over eight years and recently formed a company, Blue Line Security Solutions, to market it. The St. Louis Circuit Court is one of three sites (a daycare and downtown business are the others) where they are testing the program for free.

“I think in today’s world, being observed by a security camera is not that unusual or odd an event,” said Mike Guzy, spokesman for Sheriff James Murphy, whose office secures the courthouse and transports prisoners. “The only difference here is if you have been deemed a threat, the security officers will be notified that you are on the premises.”

Guzy, who brought the idea to the courthouse, emphasized, “We are not screening everybody who walks in to see if they have any unpaid parking tickets or anything like that.”

Still, the pilot program has drawn concern from the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman said in an interview Friday that in some ways, the targeted approach was more troubling than broad-based facial recognition applications.

“Whenever you start targeting people for differential treatment, and that targeting is being done by the government, we have to be very careful,” he said. For example, he asked, “Who is responsible for selecting these people who are quote, unquote, flagged?”

The judges voted on the trial program in December, after a presentation that used the Arkansas shooting as an example. Palmer had raised alarms with his family, who communicated them to police just prior to the shooting.

The judges eventually will be asked to consider using the program on a permanent basis. Costs have not yet been worked out.

Stop and look

The cameras are perched at the top of the security gates at the courthouse. For several weeks, sheriff’s deputies have been learning how to use them. When the program is fully running, visitors will be asked to pause at the gates, take off any hats, glasses or other obstructions, and look at the cameras before passing through.

The system compares each person’s face to photographs stored in the computer. It alerts deputies if there is a match, and of the nature of the threat. The alert also can be sent to any designated iPhone – for instance, directly to a judge who has been threatened.

If a visitor who does not already have his or her photo stored later causes problems or becomes a threat, a security gate photo can be retrieved from the video feed. But other than that, nobody’s images are stored.

“This was very specifically designed to only capture people you want to stop for security reasons,” said St. Louis Police Major Joseph Spiess, one of the officers who started the company. “If you look at it and it doesn’t recognize you as a threat, you’re gone from the system.”

Facial recognition technology has been used increasingly in both the private and public sectors. More than half the states use it in drivers license registries as a way to prevent ID fraud. Facebook uses it to suggest names to be added to photographs, and some companies have starting using it to target ads to consumers.

Where it has migrated into local law enforcement, the technology has been used mostly to check someone’s criminal history based on a photograph, or for chasing leads in investigations.

What Blue Line proposes is much more narrow, Spiess said, and that is one of its major benefits.

Its approach allows for an almost instantaneous match, and thus, quick reactions to security problems, because the database being searched is relatively small. Spiess said he believed that narrowed use should allay civil liberties concerns.

In addition to courthouse security, Blue Line is marketing additional uses of the technology: to warn of a disgruntled former employee returning to the workplace, to alert shopping mall security of known shoplifters; and to help pharmacies ward off prescription drug theft and fraud.

It can also be used in reverse – for instance at a daycare or school, where photos of authorized people are entered into the system, flagging anyone who does not have permission to enter.

Blue Line has garnered interest from several area companies. And it is working on upgrades that could broaden its appeal: a point-and-zoom camera for identifying threats in crowds, a door release system for places that already have swipe card access but want to make sure the right person is using the card, and an application for people clocking into work.

“I think facial recognition will be everywhere in five years, and honestly, it’s a race to get there,” Spiess said.

Mittman, of the ACLU, said he had no complaint with private companies’ doing what they want with security.

“But the courthouses are public buildings that belong to the people,” he said. “To test something that has the potential to keep the public out is very concerning.”

He said the ACLU would probably reach out to court officials to find a middle ground that addresses both security and their civil liberties.

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