Police share digital mugshots in post-Sept. 11 embrace of biometrics

By Jim Bronskill, Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) - Canadian police forces have begun electronically sharing mugshots as part of a project that could eventually lead to a nationwide database of crime suspect photos.

Three Ontario police services converted their mugshot files into digital images for the pilot project, then pooled their efforts to create a searchable online library of 118,000 photos. Police used the computerized tool to quickly - and often successfully - compare images of people they arrested with the virtual library containing photos from old mugshot books, video surveillance tapes and composite drawings.

"Matches could be found even where the subject went from long hair to bald in five years," says a recent report by the Canadian Police Research Centre, one of the participants.

The project is just one example of how law-enforcement, security and intelligence agencies are embracing biometric technologies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Authorities say the terrorist assaults revealed a glaring need to better track and share information about people of concern.

Critics predict the move toward reliance on such biometric identifiers as fingerprints, facial images and iris scans will be a troubling legacy of 9-11. They foresee an Orwellian society in which civil liberties and privacy are sacrificed in the name of national security.

Advocates insist the brave new technologies will make Canada a safer place.

The digital mugshot initiative, known as Project BlueBear, was a collaboration of the Canadian Police Research Centre, private firm VisionSphere Technologies Inc. and the southern Ontario police services of York, Windsor and Chatham-Kent.

In announcing the pilot effort two years ago, John Arnold, chief scientist for the police research centre, said "the events of 9-11 clearly demonstrate the need for police services on both sides of the border to share information in a more timely, cost-effective way."

Participants feel the best police uses for the facial-recognition technology are confirming the identity of suspects prior to booking, identification of faces caught on video surveillance systems and the compilation of "suspect" databases.

"All agreed that the BlueBear system would be even more effective linked to larger and more police mugshot systems."

The initiative could help fulfil a long-term federal goal of ensuring all Canadian police services can collect and transmit digital fingerprint images, mugshots and biographical information.

While the events of Sept. 11 seem to have accelerated adoption of high-tech tools and security watch lists, experts question their value in fighting terrorism.

"In the case of 9-11, only two of the 19 attackers would have appeared on watch lists and would have been stopped," said Andrew Clement, an information studies professor at the University of Toronto.

Dogged investigation and field work is necessary to determine whether someone might be a terrorist, particularly since many try to keep an ultra-low profile before committing a deadly act, he said.

"If they are a suicide bomber, they only get to do it once. There''s no record, there''s no database of their prior activity that indicates danger."

A federal task force on identity documents acknowledged earlier this year that biometrics cannot conclusively establish a person''s identity.

"Nor can biometrics replace the intelligence necessary to determine that someone is likely to be a terrorist, or some other public security concern," said a report by the task force.

However, the paper added, such digital markers can help support investigative work and "may prove to be the only speedy or non-discriminatory way to identify impostors or people of security concern."

Among the initiatives involving biometrics currently in the works:

-Proposals that would require virtually all newcomers to Canada, including visitors, refugees, permanent residents and new citizens, to be fingerprinted and photographed.

-An electronic passport featuring the holder''s photo and biographical information on a computer chip.

-Electronic comparison of photos of passport applicants against images of people on security watch lists.

Some see these watch lists as the Achilles heel of the biometric strategy.

The often poor quality of such files means matches can actually be serious cases of mistaken identity, says Roch Tasse of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

"There''s no coherent system to manage those lists."

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