Calgary Crime Detection Goes High Tech

In a controversial move, Calgary police have announced that they will begin using a new face-identification software to aid in their criminal investigations.

Using a database of existing mugshots from convicted criminals and non-convicted suspects—a database that is likely to grow rapidly now that Calgary police are all equipped with body cameras that can store pictures of everyone they encounter—the NeoFace software can compare crime scene photo and video footage to stored faces and find matches far more quickly than a manual search.

While this technology presents a cost- and time-savings to Calgary police, and could lead to arrests for crimes where perpetrators might otherwise have gone unidentified, there are also significant privacy concerns raised by some, especially if the tool is used outside the scope of specific police investigations.

“There are a number of access and privacy issues raised,” said Scott Sibbald, spokesman for Alberta's Information and Privacy Commissioner. "We were not made aware of this initiative prior to the announcement this morning—and although it’s not mandatory to submit a privacy impact assessment, it is highly recommended.”

The potential for the system to be used to store information even on non-criminal Calgarians is even hinted at by Insp. Rosemary Hawkins of the Calgary Police Service's Criminal Identification Unit:

"It’s not restricted to a certain level of crime—it’s here to assist us in our police investigations,” said Hawkins. "If a criminal offence has occurred, and we have evidence that we can use and run it through our facial recognition technology, we will use this process."

This statement hints at the possibility that the software could be used to identify victims and witnesses as well as perpetrators, which some in Calgary see as a slippery slope towards citizen-wide surveillance and facial tracking.

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