A property tax levy that funds a fingerprint-identification program utilized by regional law enforcement agencies is up for renewal on next week’s August primary ballot. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht is urging voters to pass it, despite some criticisms from civil liberties advocates.
The levy, first established in 1986, funds the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), a regional program that serves 40 different police agencies across King County, including the Sheriff’s Office. Currently, AFIS serves as an electronic database of fingerprints that law enforcement and jail staff can use to quickly scan, upload, and cross reference prints to identify people involved in cases. (Prints are collected both at crime scenes and from inmates at jails during the intake process.) At an press conference on Thursday, Aug. 2, Johanknecht called the system a “god-send to law enforcement.”
But the AFIS levy is set to expire by the end of 2018. According to Johanknecht, local law enforcement agencies will have to start sending fingerprints to the already backlogged Washington State Patrol crime forensics lab for analysis if the levy isn’t renewed, severely hampering the speed that cases can be solved.
“[AFIS] allows us to send those cases to the prosecutor and work on cutting back on those crimes and arresting those offenders. Those things wouldn’t happen if the levy doesn’t pass,” she said.
The new levy would cost property owners less than the current measure. According to Johanknecht, the renewal would cost roughly three cents per $1,000 property valuation, down from last year’s roughly four cents per $1,000 valuation. A the owner of a $600,000 home in King County would pay $21 for the entire year. (The Sheriff added that her office has been getting calls from homeowners concerned about the levy, which prompted her to call the press conference.)
However, some civil liberties advocates are concerned that language in the levy ordinance allow for King County to invest in new identification systems, such as facial recognition. Earlier this year, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski introduced an amendment to the measure that allows for levy revenue to be spent on research of new biometric technology and the development of pilot projects—so long as the council is informed in advance and gives the project the greenlight. (The change would also require that privacy and civil liberties experts be consulted.)
Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project manager at the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Seattle Weekly that the measure’s language is too open-ended and leaves room to use taxpayer funds for a variety of biometric technologies that voters may not explicitly endorse. Additionally, he argued that the county needs to identify a specific need for new biometrics.
“It is very very broad language. That’s part of the problem. Rather than fishing for the next shiny toy a need should be articulated,” Narayan said. “If it really is facial recognition that you’re trying to invest in than the voters should be asked of that.”
Nationally, the ACLU has opposed the use of facial recognition tools for airport security and other sectors, arguing that they are prone to errors and can be easily tripped up by changes in facial hair, weight, and hair style. In late July, the civil liberties group ran a test on members of congress using Amazon’s Rekognition facial identification software and found that the program falsely matched 28 representatives to criminal mugshots.
“I think it’s incumbent on our public officials to really ask the right questions about what public safety benefits these tools have and if they are compatible with civil liberties in a free society,” he added. “What happens when the next sheriff comes along? What happens if this program gathers information in ways that are problematic and the feds come looking for it?” (Fingerprints and other information from AFIS are eventually passed along to the Washington State Patrol to add to their database, who then send it to the FBI for similar purposes.)
AFIS program manager Carol Gillespie said that while the current system doesn’t have facial recognition capabilities, the county plans to purchase an updated version that would feature such functions if the levy is renewed. However, Gillespie claimed that the AFIS program wouldn’t utilize the system’s facial recognition capabilities without getting approval from the council, per Dembowski’s amendment. “A lot of AFIS vendors are selling products that have multimodal biometrics included. But that doesn’t mean we have to use it,” she said.
In defense of facial recognition, Gillespie said that it can speed up the process for matching mugshots to camera footage and other images. “The algorithms are getting better and better … It helps us narrow down a search … It’s not about public surveillance.”
Dembowski defended his amendment as promoting privacy while allowing for the county to utilize cutting edge technology. “The technology in this field is going to continue and evolve and advance. Things like palm prints, hair samples, saliva—things that can be found at crime scenes—could be valuable in convicting offenders and exonerating the innocent,” he said. “That’s really important to me. I believe that this goes both ways.” (Dembowski added that he reached out to Narayan and the ACLU about his amendment several months ago, but never heard back. Narayan said that he “was not able to engage at the time.”)
He also claimed that his amendment is the “first time we’ve written privacy protections into crime fighting technology at the county.”
While Johanknecht said at Thursday’s press conference that her office has “spent a lot of time talking with the ACLU and discussing this with their technology expert,” Narayan said that he only spoke with AFIS and Sheriff’s Office staff on Wednesday, Aug. 1. “I talked to them yesterday and made very clear and said that we thought the language fell way short,” he said.
“This is really about the big picture,” Narayan added. “This is about how these surveillance infrastructures get built piece by piece without public transparency.”