Share story

Seattle police will soon be able to use facial-recognition technology to compare images of unidentified suspects with an extensive database of jail mug shots.

The Seattle City Council has approved the police department’s use of facial-recognition software under a policy created with input from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington.

Until the software goes into use later this year, police will continue to manually compare photos captured by surveillance cameras with jail-booking mug shots, a painstaking, time-consuming process.

Investigators also send out bulletins to other police agencies hoping that someone will be able to identify surveillance images, said Seattle police Assistant Chief Carmen Best.

The new computer software will allow police to quickly scan some 350,000 jail mug shots to determine whether there is a match with a suspect’s photo,

police said.

“It’s called booking-photo comparison software,” said police spokesman Mark Jamieson. “The software measures the distance of points on the face using an algorithm of individual matching points on the eyes, the ears, the nose and the chin. Everybody’s face is unique to them, kind of like a fingerprint.”

Best said the department has been “discussing having this kind of capability for four years or so.” But first, the department sought to craft a policy that would negate concerns over potential abuses or privacy intrusions.

“It took a lot ensuring people were going to be comfortable, that this would not have some other use. There were concerns about privacy issues,” she said.

Doug Honig, spokesman for ACLU of Washington, said the organization had concerns that facial-recognition software could be used “on fishing expeditions,” to identify people in crowds, protests, over a live stream, or anyone not necessarily suspected of a crime.

Under the policy, the software is to be used only to find people suspected of criminal activity.

“We’re not anti-technology. With any technology we want to make sure it’s narrowly used for criminal activity,” Honig said. “We’re not opposed to the policy as it is written. We’ll be watching closely to make sure there are no abuses.”

Best said that only a handful of officers in the department’s photo unit will be trained to use the software.

The software will be loaded onto one of several workstations throughout King, Snohomish and Pierce counties that will be connected to a main server in Pierce County. The main server will be home to photos of adults who have been booked into county jails in the three counties, said Jamieson.

The program will provide officers with one or several potential matches for them to use in their investigation, he said.

“It may help us put together a photo array. It doesn’t replace detective work, it’s just an added tool,” Jamieson said. “We still have to have probable cause to arrest somebody.”

Once the software linking the booking photos is up and running, the goal is having the photo-comparison program in use by fall, Jamieson said.

Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell said the software is being paid for by a $1.6 million federal Homeland Security grant. Other law-enforcement agencies in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties will also be able to use it.

Harrell, who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, said that Seattle police will be extremely limited in their use of the software.

“We went through great lengths to create an audit system,” Harrell said. “We know who uses it, when they use it and why they use it.”

This isn’t the first time Seattle police have encountered privacy concerns when weighing new technology. A year ago, the department grounded its proposed drone program before it even took flight after citizens voiced concerns over the potential for abuse.

The department had purchased two drones with money from a regional Homeland Security grant, envisioning uses during hostage situations and search-and-rescue operations and after natural disasters. One of the helicopters was expected to be used by the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@ seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan