Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Last week the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the FBI for access to their records regarding the function of the forthcoming federal facial recognition program and the potential for a combined civilian and criminal database. The lawsuit came on the heels of a report by the Washington Post on a facial recognition software manufactured by MorphoTrust USA, used in criminal investigations by local and state law enforcement agencies in 26 states.  The software accesses a database of over 120 million photos gathered from police booking photos, and, in some states, driver's licenses and identification cards. In the same article, Arizona is identified as one of 13 states with no facial recognition systems for driver's license photos.

Yet, in journalist Beau Hodai's report "Dissent or Terror", it is revealed that the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC) is using facial recognition software to identify persons of interest through a database composed of millions of photos, and that they have used this system to identify at least one participant in Occupy Phoenix by using a photo taken from Facebook.  The ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit is a division of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) which acts in partnership with ACTIC and participating agencies,  the Arizona Governor's office, Arizona Office of Homeland Security, county and city police agencies, and the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Incidentally, the purchase of the software by MCSO briefly became the subject of controversy in 2008, when it was revealed that $200,000 in seized RICO money, in addition to federal grant funds, had been used in relation to MCSO officers and trips taken to Honduras.  Channel 12 reporter Joe Dana and Phoenix New Times blogger Stephen Lemons documented back in 2008 that the Sheriff's Office used the software as an excuse to built a "Honduras Unit" along with a database of photos from Honduras that related to the gang MS-13. As Lemons pointed out, Arizona was not considered a state with a high number of MS-13 members, and Dana drew out connections between Hendershott and the facial recognition software contractor Hummingbird Defense Systems that may have helped the company financially profit.

According to a 2007 presentation by Norm Beasley of MCSO on "Fusion Centers & their Role in Information Sharing" the Facial Recognition Unit was capable of operating "field deployable for special events and onsite identification" and that the ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit, under the direction of MCSO, was in the process of coordinating a national network of counter-terrorism fusion centers, and obtaining all "criminal images" from participating agencies to buffer the MCSO's own facial recognition database.

While it's unknown if the MCSO was able to achieve the goals outlined in Beasley's presentation, the  information obtained by Hodai from an Arizona Department of Homeland Security record shows that the ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit could access a database of 24.7 million photos from their photographic databases to identify an individual:
"The ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit has the ability to match biometric data contained in photographs -- such as those found on Facebook -- with biometric data contained in roughly 18 million Arizona Driver's License photos, 4.7 million Arizona county/municipal jail 'booking' photos, 12,000 photos contained in the 'Arizona Sex Offender Database,' and 2 million photos available through the Federal Joint Automated Booking System."
According to the MCSO's Counter-Terrorism website, the ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit "contributes to all criminal and counterterrorism investigations by potentially identifying unknown subjects, or locating known subjects, through a comparison of their photographic images to millions of stored booking, driver's license, and other related data bases."

The ACTIC Facial Recognition Unit has been used by Phoenix Terrorism Liaison All-Hazards Analyst Brenda Dowhan, an intelligence analyst for ACTIC, in at least one attempt to identify a person believed to have been involved with Occupy Phoenix. As documented below, in an email obtained by Hodai, Dowhan responds to Phoenix police detective CJ Wren who had asked for help identifying this woman by her facebook photo. 

The facial recognition search was unable to identify the person in the photo amongst the database of nearly 25 million photos.

If the use of facial recognition technology is about furthering the ability of police to catch "bad guys", then why is it that just about anyone who challenges the rich and powerful can end up in an ACTIC database search?  Beau Hodai, the author of the report on the Arizona counter-terrorism fusion centers, was driven to undertake the research after he was ejected from the 2011 ALEC conference in Scottsdale by security as a "persona non grata."

Rather than his removal being a misunderstanding, or the actions of a rogue cop, it was the hidden collaboration between the Phoenix police department and the ALEC planners in identifying and removing unwanted individuals.  In addition to journalists, Hodai's report and police documents disclosed the level of attention paid to Occupy Phoenix, anarchists, and Indigenous activists who seem to be singled out for no other reason than their motivation to take action against the interests of the rich and powerful.

This raises even more questions in what already looks like at the very least to be a case of police abuse of authority.  Already, we have documented on this blog that the PPD and FBI were almost certainly sharing information on protests and protesters with perennial activist target and accused abuser of workers, Freeport-McMoran.  This sharing was direct through emails, but may as well have happened through the FBI Fusion Center, where private security firm Infragard was allowed to participate in information sharing.  Likewise, we have also revealed how Tempe PD anti-terror cops treated local activists as terrorists.

The Washington Post article does not list Arizona as one of the states that uses facial recognition technology to access drivers license databases, but the documents released surrounding Occupy Phoenix and anti-ALEC protests clearly do contain photos taken from drivers licenses.  Are there databases of Valley activists?  Down and Drought has documents that suggest that there are, at least in the case of the Tempe Police Department.  Further, is this activity legal?   Especially when it is being used to target and identify activists.  Many states have laws regulating this kind of activity, or preventing it to be used for political purposes.  What is the case in Arizona?  More and more it appears that regardless of its original intent, the growing police and surveillance apparatus in Arizona, under the cover of anti-terrorism, has increasingly become a weapon for police to target activists and, in so doing, to protect corporations.  While the US is gripped by the NSA spying story, we seem to have our own mini-version right here in the Copper State.

This is part 6 in our ongoing series analyzing recently released police and Federal documents detailing their surveillance and infiltration of Occupy Phoenix and anarchists in the Valley.

1 comment:

  1. Arizona is identified as one of 13 states with no facial recognition systems for driver's license photos.speech recognition program