At a press conference today, Attorney General Mike DeWine informed Ohio citizens that a powerful facial recognition system with access to driver’s licenses photographs and mug shots went live on June 2. In exactly what capacity it went live, however, isn’t entirely clear. Law enforcement officers and officials in DeWine’s office disagree about whether system was in beta testing or fully launched. What is known is that since June 2, police officers have performed 2,600 searches using the new database feature, which scans driver’s license photographs and police mug shots and compares them to any image, be it a photograph or a still-frame from a surveillance camera. The system is designed to take advantage of the increasing prevalence of security cameras. In Cincinnati alone, police already have access to 118 security cameras, but anticipate having access to over 1,000 by the end of 2014. That number doesn’t include footage from cameras that law enforcement can acquire when private businesses cooperate in investigations. Anyone with access to the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway can potentially identify and acquire personal information — including home addresses or driver’s license and social security numbers of strangers. Last week, DeWine informed The Enquirer that his office didn’t believe the public needed to be informed of the system’s launch because 26 other states already have such databases in operation. But now, nearly two months after its launch, he is forming an advisory panel of judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement representatives to create rules that will prevent privacy abuses. Not that DeWine is concerned: “Whether you call it a test phase or don’t call it a test phase, if we find something [wrong], we would change it, and if we find something alarming, we would shut it down,” he told The Enquirer. “The fact that over half of states use [facial recognition technology], the fact that the FBI has used it, the fact that we have controls in [the online database] that work in the sense that we could prosecute people…all of those indicate to me that what we have is adequate.” DeWine’s confidence in the safeguards of a system which went into operation without his approval is unlikely to mollify the concerns of privacy advocates. In a statement, the ACLU has already called on DeWine to “pull the plug” on the system. “This system needs to be shut down until there are meaningful, documented rules in place to keep this information secure, protect the privacy of innocent people, and prevent government abuse of this new tool,” Associate Director Gary Daniels said.
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