The Lancaster station of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department got a little help from Big Brother in cracking its latest robbery spree:
Of three armed robberies in Lancaster over eight days, one of the incidents was caught on surveillance tape. So Sheriff's investigators entered “a clear image of the suspect's face” into “a new law enforcement computerized Facial Recognition Software Program” …
… and “within minutes, the program provided a possible match to the robbery suspect, who was a 31-year-old man possibly living in South Los Angeles,” according to a proud department presser.
Sergeant Randy Harris tells the Weekly he can't reveal any details about the software itself — only that the technology it uses is top-secret, and that it's exclusively available to law enforcement.
Which, in this suspicious day of CIA-LAPD collaborations and censorship and cyberspies, is enough to totally creep us out/want to know more.
Of course, the department's most recent arrest (described below, in a press release) was based on an overflow of evidence that far exceeded the creepy robot face-match. So we'll let investigators have their moment of glory:
While Sheriff's investigators were looking for the suspect from the first robbery, a second (similar) robbery took place the next day in Lancaster on January 18th at a small fast food restaurant.
On January 25th, a third robbery at a postal supply and private mailbox business on East Avenue J resulted in deputies identifying the vehicle used in the robbery. This led to locating the male suspect and identifying his accomplice, a 19-year-old female who has been identified as the person driving the getaway car.
The male suspect who was arrested for the robberies is the same suspect the Facial Recognition Program indicated as a possible match.
Like we said, though, it's hard not to be paranoid. Harris assures us that the software is only brought out to play when investigators have “probable cause to believe a crime has occurred.” However, undocumented immigrants can attest that “probable cause” can be as flimsy as selling ice cream without a permit or not having a driver's license.
The facial-recognition program “has been available to us for approximately a year,” says Harris — but it was “updated six months ago.” And solving the Lancaster robbery spree has been a major milestone in its implementation.
Facial-recognition science has made leaps and bounds in the last year or so: Science Daily reported last summer that it's been much improved by new algorithms that are “measuring and analyzing many more variables in each image.” (The new software reportedly performs “even with low-resolution images of faces and with varying lighting conditions and even if other objects, such as overhead lights or 'loud' shirts, are present in the photo.”)
At the same time, surveillance cameras have been fastened overhead at every last cash register and oceanfront walk.
The suspect in Lancaster's robbery spree tried to cover his face while carrying out the actual stickup, but all it took was one grainy glimpse beforehand to get a match:
The male suspect would wait for the other patrons to leave the targeted businesses before approaching the cashiers. He would then cover his face with sunglasses and a hoody, brandish a firearm and have the clerks open the cash registers. The total amount of cash stolen in the three robberies is still under investigation, but it is believed to total thousands of dollars.
Clearly, if local law enforcement — who often work alongside federal law enforcement — want to find you, and you've ever been booked for anything at all, you will be found. There are also concerns, as reported by KPCC news radio upon introduction of handheld facial-recognition devices last year, that these cross-agency databases end up including noncriminals.
“We're certainly not saying that the police shouldn't be able to go out and catch the bad guys,” Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told KPCC. “But we also want them to do their jobs and do an investigation in a way that protects everyone's privacy.”
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca confirmed to the station last summer that the department was interested in entering the brave new world of police-state biometrics: “We certainly have met with one company that has facial-recognition technology,” Baca said. (Related: “Illegal Immigrants Beware: L.A. Sheriff's Deputies Can Now Run Your Fingerprints in the Field.”)
Just one more thing to freak out about whenever you leave the house. Unless you're down to wear KISS makeup and Bowie hair.