Program pushes facial recognition for Iowa sex offenders

Initiative raises privacy concerns

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DES MOINES — Each of the more than 5,600 registered sex offenders in Iowa could soon have their mug shots 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.

Related: Iowa’s sex offender rules costing state money

“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.”

Program’s use spreading

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.

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 say 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.”

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