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Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

DeWine limits access to facial recognition data

By Kathy Thompson
State Attorney General Mike DeWine is restricting law enforcement access to a facial recognition database following controversy over privacy issues and overly broad use of the system.
DeWine recently narrowed access to the system - available through the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway - to a handful of officers across the state, including four detectives at the Mercer County Sheriff's Office.
The program, which was launched last year, allows officers to take an image of an unknown person and compare it with others already in the system in hopes of finding a match.
The system holds images of 24 million photos from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the sex offender registry, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Ohio Courts Network and various law-enforcement agencies.
DeWine came under fire last year when it was discovered the system was launched in June without public notification. He refused to back down from critics but created a task force of law-enforcement officials, judges and a member of the ACLU to keep use and access under tight control.
"We sent out a request to all chiefs and sheriffs in the state to identify which officers in their departments should maintain access to the database," said Jill Del Greco, a spokeswoman for DeWine's office. "Not everyone responded. Those that didn't were suspended unless we receive that information."
Del Greco added that approval was given to officers or deputies based on their duties and job assignments.
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey, who does not have access to the system, said his office has yet to use it. He believes it can be a valuable tool if no abuse takes place. He said his staff is "very cautious with our government databases. Any tool we have we must use wisely and carefully for a proper investigative purpose."
"There is a huge balancing act; if the tool is used correctly, it will catch bad guys," he said.
Grey said it can be helpful in situations such as a bank robbery when the only evidence is a picture of the suspect.
"Where it gets out of line is when the government tries to track people's movements or identify someone inappropriately," the sheriff said. "For example, finding out who your ex is dating.  That would be a crime."
Misuse of the OLEG system is a fifth-degree felony in Ohio.
Lorain County Sheriff Phil Stammitti, a task force member, said those using the system have to be very careful.
"But even if we get a match, we make sure we have additional evidence. I tell my detectives a picture match is not a case," he said.
According to DeWine's office, the system has already proven successful in crime investigations.
Akron police officers earlier this year used the database to capture a homicide suspect within hours of a murder of a man who was robbed and shot on a city street, according to the AG's office. Police were able to confirm the suspect's identity after a photograph was shown to the victim's girlfriend. The suspect pleaded guilty in June to manslaughter and aggravated robbery, according to DeWine's office.
"It is important that investigators have access to technology that can assist them in protecting Ohio's families," DeWine said.
A total of 5,594 law-enforcement officers across the state have access to the facial-recognition program, which is limited to Ohio and federal law-enforcement agencies. The number reflects a decrease of 2,236 users last year, according to DeWine's office.
Of the departments using the system, 552 agencies have conducted at least one search in the past year. Almost 9,000 searches have been completed since the database became available; 2,802 of those took place this year.
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