The NYPD is being taken to task for using a photo of Woody Harrelson in its facial recognition program designed to identify criminals, using a photo of the “True Detective” star because of his resemblance to a real-life criminal.
The Associated Press reports that police were unable to use a photo of a thief who was captured by a security camera stealing a six-pack of beer, as the footage was too pixelated for use with its facial-recognition software that compares photos of suspects to those within the department’s database.
Recognizing that the suspect in the footage bore a striking resemblance to Harrelson, police instead used a photo of the 57-year-old actor – which reportedly turned up several suspects and resulted in an arrest.
However, a new report from Georgetown University’s Law Center on Privacy and Technology is highly critical of the department’s practice of using celebrity photos to help track down criminal lookalikes, noting that the NYPD had also used a photo of a New York Knicks player to search the database for a man wanted for assault.
“This celebrity ‘match’ was sent back to the investigating officers, and someone who was not Woody Harrelson was eventually arrested for petit larceny,” declares the report of the Harrelson pic.
“The stakes are too high in criminal investigations to rely on unreliable – or wrong – inputs,” Georgetown researcher Clare Garvie wrote in the report “Garbage In, Garbage Out”, which takes a critical view of allegedly flawed practices in police use of facial recognition technology.
“It is one thing for a company to build a face recognition system designed to help individuals find their celebrity doppelganger or painting lookalike for entertainment purposes,” Garvie continues. “It’s quite another to use these techniques to identify criminal suspects, who may be deprived of their liberty and ultimately prosecuted based on the match.”
However, an NYPD spokesperson defends the practice of using lookalike photos, explaining that facial recognition technology is simply one of many tools in the department’s crime-fighting arsenal.
“No one has ever been arrested on the basis of a facial recognition match alone,” said Sgt. Jessica McRorie said in a statement. “As with any lead, further investigation is always needed to develop probable cause to arrest.”
According to McRorie, the department is currently reviewing its facial recognition protocols in order to improve the process.
“We compare images from crime scenes to arrest photos in law enforcement records,” McRorie added. “We do not engage in mass or random collection of facial records from NYPD camera systems, the Internet, or social media.”
Despite the NYPD’s defense of its program, Garvie has a strong message for police. “Stop using celebrity lookalike probe images,” she writes in her report. “Face recognition is generally considered to be a biometric, albeit an imperfect one. Police cannot substitute one person’s biometrics for another’s, regardless of whatever passing resemblance they may have.”