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Facial recognition tool: High-tech police aid or invasion of privacy?

SEATTLE — Seattle police are considering a high-tech tool to help capture criminals. But it’s also raising concerns about privacy.

Previously, surveillance drones were to fly high in the skies above Seattle. But they got shot down before they took off.

Then surveillance cameras were to watch the waterfront. But they were shut off because of concern from people like David Robinson, of the Seattle Privacy Coalition.

“The drone business, the camera business, they thought these are great tools for the police, but they also have really serious privacy implications,” Robinson said.

The City Council is considering a plan by the Seattle Police Department to use facial recognition technology to catch criminals. The system would scan surveillance video and compare it to a database of mug shots.

“If there’s not reasonable suspicion of a crime, they’re not involved with anything, there’s no reason to compare that image, or even take that image,” Assistant Police Chief Carmen Best told the City Council.

But privacy experts worry about misuse of the technology. For instance, if pictures are taken of people during protests, could their faces be put in a database? And could the data be shared with the federal government?

“If the data is collected and preserved, it’s going to be available to anyone who wants to get a warrant for it,” Robinson said. “Data-sharing, it’s available to any agency that wants to get a hold of it.”

Police say there are safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen. But the City Council will continue studying the idea before making a final decision.

“We continue to talk off-line to as many folks as possible,” City Councilman Bruce Harrell said. “We respect deeply the Seattle Privacy Coalition and all the privacy rights’ advocates out there to make sure the government is being responsible.”

The City Council will take up this issue again Monday and they’re set to vote on it March 10.

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