Local facial recognition company wanted police to share your private information

Local facial recognition company wanted police to share your private information

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A Cambridge-based start-up company, backed by billionaire Mark Cuban, tried to convince Massachusetts police departments to install its facial recognition software and hand over some of your private information.

Emails obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts through public records request shed light on how the facial recognition company "Suspect Technologies" tried to strike a deal with the Plymouth Police Department.

"The emails themselves show that the CEO of this surveillance company acknowledges that it might only work about 30% of the time," said Kade Crockford, ACLU of Mass. "It seems like they were doing this without any public debate, without bringing this to the people of Plymouth to see if this is whether or not it was something people actually wanted."

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The co-founder of Cambridge start-up Jacob Sniff sent Plymouth Police Chief Michael Botieri a proposal that called for installing cameras in the police station's lobby, as well as nearly two dozen public buildings, including schools.

Sniff said the selling points included police being able to track people in real time, in addition to seeing where they've been in the past. Also, running photos against a database to see if a match comes up.

Sniff also noted how police would be able to use the software to "Search people by age, gender, ethnicity, etc."

"A number of powerful technology companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, have had their technologies tested and researchers have found that even as many as one in three dark-skinned, so black women's faces, cannot be recognized or are misidentified by these technologies," said Crockford.

Sniff repeatedly asked Botieri for help in getting access to driver's license photos from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicle's database.

"We think that's because he wanted to use those images to train his private face recognition for his own profit and for the profit," said Crockford.

In an email to Boston 25 News, a spokesperson for the RMV said in part, "The RMV does not provide access to its image files or facial recognition technology to any commercial third parties."

Meantime, the ACLU is backing a bill on Beacon Hill calling for more oversight on facial recognition software.

"It would essentially just press pause and say that any existing deployments of face recognition must stop until the legislature can work out some common sense checks and balances to make sure that this technology isn't violating people's rights," said Crockford.

The deal between Suspect Technologies and Plymouth Police didn't work out.

In an email last June, Chief Botieri said he didn't have any money budgeted for the proposal. Boston 25 News reached out to Botieri for comment but has not yet heard back.

Sniff sent Boston 25 News the following statement Monday night:

"The team at Suspect Technologies strives to provide video analytical solutions that enable public safety authorities to solve crime, improve the quality of life for their local communities and provide technology that is designed to respect privacy and protect the innocent:
1. First, our company's main product focuses on privacy protection. This is the redaction product which easily blurs out faces in video streams to protect innocent bystanders from being seen.
2. Second, in terms of facial recognition, the company is strategically working with a few public-safety agencies interested in testing our technology against their own proprietary data in house. We are carefully working to make sure the technology is unbiased before marketing the product.
3. Last, there are currently hundreds of companies working on facial recognition in the US. Various parts of the piece by VICE have been misrepresented and pulled out of context from a series of old emails that were simply discussing/brainstorming ideas and concepts that may or may not be pursued by Suspect Technologies in the future."