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Chicago police go high-tech with facial recognition software

Pierre Martwho is being held Cook County Jail $300000 bond charge armed robbery with firearm.

Pierre Martin, who is being held in Cook County Jail on $300,000 bond on a charge of armed robbery with a firearm.

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Updated: August 15, 2013 6:26AM

Pierre Martin’s face sealed his fate.

Earlier this year, Martin became the first person in Chicago arrested as a result of a little-known Chicago Police Department high-tech program just getting started, which uses facial-recognition software.

Police had a photo captured on a CTA surveillance camera on Jan. 28 of a suspected mugger, looking to the side, after he had just allegedly stolen a cellphone from a man at gunpoint on a Pink Line train.

Police also had an ocean of photos for comparison — 4.5 million criminal booking shots.

They ran the program.

And Pierre Martin ranked No. 1 on a list no one wants to top.

Martin’s mugshot ranked best among possible matches, but the investigation didn’t stop there. Witnesses identified him in photo lineups, and he confessed following his May arrest, police allege.

Investigators used software called NeoFace, one of the facial-recognition tools being used by police departments across the country. It could be potentially potent in Chicago, with 24,000 surveillance cameras tied into the city’s computer network. Civil libertarians, though, are not happy, with the potential they see for abuse.

Martin, 34, is a suspect in at least two CTA robberies, said Chicago Police Cmdr. Jonathan Lewin, who oversees information technology for the police and fire departments and the 911 center.

“This was our first success,” Lewin said of the NeoFace program. So far, Martin is the only one police have arrested with help from the software but Lewin predicted, “as we pick up our training, you will see ongoing successes.”

The Police Department fully launched the NeoFace system in mid-June. The department’s three detective branches and the Criminal Information Prevention Center in police headquarters have been equipped with NeoFace work stations. The department is now training officers to use the system.

The police department paid for the technology through a $5.4 million federal Transportation Security Administration grant. The grant, obtained through the CTA, includes an upgrade of the Police Department’s computer network bandwidth to allow for quicker transmission of photo images.

Lewin said he did not know how many photos might be submitted for matches, but he said detectives routinely seek surveillance photos as part of their investigations. Over the years, it has become easier to obtain them with all the security cameras linked into the city’s computer network, along with the thousands of businesses that have their own cameras.

Chicago Police detectives will be asked to submit unidentified surveillance photos from cold cases for possible matches in the NeoFace system, Lewin said.

Other departments are already benefitting from the high-tech tool.

In Pennsylvania, more than 800 law enforcement agencies are part of an organization that conducts training sessions in facial-recognition technology every two weeks, Lewin said. Officers are asked to bring unidentified photos of suspects to the training sessions — and at least one is identified at every session, Lewin was told.

The NeoFace technology allows for a match even when part of the subject’s face might be hidden by a hat or sunglasses — or the subject’s head is turned, like the case of the CTA mugger.

The quality of the videos can vary widely depending on what type of camera is used. The CTA image used to nab Martin came from a high-definition camera, but NeoFace can analyze regular definition images, too, Lewin said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is wary of the department’s use of facial-recognition technology, especially with recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance practices.

In a report released about two years ago, the ACLU recommended that police should use such technology only when they have probable cause that the person in the image was involved in a crime.

“Our position continues to be the same,” said Adam Schwartz, a staff lawyer for the ACLU of Illinois, adding that he was unaware police were now using facial-recognition technology.

Lewin said the NeoFace technology is being used only “in active criminal cases with an unidentified criminal subject.” He also said the system is unable to perform “real-time surveillance of subjects. It’s only post-event.”

A still image must be submitted for comparison, Lewin said.

“There will absolutely be no random surveillance — and facial recognition — of subjects in the public way,” he said.

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