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Trial exposes law enforcement use of facial recognition

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Evidence uncovered during a drug case in Jacksonville has provided the public with a glimpse at the facial-recognition technology being used by Florida law enforcement.

A suspected crack cocaine dealer, Willie Allen Lynch in Jacksonville, deposed detectives to learn how they were able to identify him in an undercover drug sting, according to a report in The Florida Times-Union. The Jacksonville Sheriff's detectives said they used a facial recognition database that matched Lynch's likeness with police and driver's license photographs.

The Face Analysis Comparison Examination System, or FACES, has raised concerns among civil liberties advocates over its potential for abuse. Thus far, police in Florida have not talked much about how they use it to identify suspects.

"It's the lack of transparency and the lack of documentation that is truly concerning," James Boyle, a former public defender and assistant state attorney, told the Times-Union.

"How many cases get pleaded out without taking depositions for all the witnesses?" said Boyle. "And in all of those cases, how many of them use the technology and we have no idea about it?"

Defense attorneys interviewed by the paper in Jacksonville and Pinellas County, where the FACES system is administered, had never heard of it, even though it is searched about 8,000 times a month. They questioned whether law enforcement was properly sharing the information in criminal cases, as required.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, one of 40 agencies in Florida to upload its mugshots to FACES, said Lynch's case is not the first to benefit from such a search. A spokeswoman also said the office doesn't track its use of the software.

"It is a tool in our toolbox," sheriff's spokeswoman Melissa Bujeda said. "Many tools are required to conduct an investigation and put a case together."

In Lynch's case, investigators initially wrote that he was identified using the agency's mugshot database, not FACES. The case had hit a snag, and it wasn't until investigators ran a photo taken by narcotics officers through FACES that they identified Lynch. The information did not come out until they were asked about it specifically by Lynch's lawyers. He was convicted, and sentenced to eight years in prison.