Friday, July 12, 2013

Forget citizen journalists - we now have citizen police

As more and more information becomes publicly accessible online, new capabilities become possible. Since I am involved in the biometric industry, I learned (via findBIOMETRICS) of a July 10 press release:

JailBase ( has developed a mobile app making database searches simpler and easier than ever. Now users armed only with a photo can use facial recognition to query JailBase’s extensive database of mugshots and arrest records and find a match ( The mobile app allows the public to search JailBase's millions of arrest records for people who have been arrested in many counties in the United States. Users can be notified when someone they know is booked in jail again. Recent arrests can also be viewed and filtered by gender, race, location, and date.

The current release supports Android phones and tablets. An iPhone and iPad version is planned for release in the 4th quarter of 2013.

In essence, JailBase is taking advantage of information that is publicly available, and combining it with a facial recognition algorithm. There are all sorts of websites that aggregate mugshot photos from different law enforcement agencies. So now, if you take a photo, a facial recognition algorithm, and access to the Jailbase database, you can see the likelihood of a match.

In theory, this means that "citizen police" can now roam the streets and find bad people.

However, there are two very important cautions to note:

First off, just because a person has been arrested does not mean that the person is guilty of a crime. This is something that Jailbase itself makes clear:

Arrest and booking records simply state who, when and why (if available) someone was arrested or booked. It does not imply guilt. An arrested or booked individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. What happens in a court of law (for example, when charges are dropped), is outside the scope of and must be researched independently by the user of the site.

Second, no facial recognition system (or any biometric system) is 100% accurate. I don't know how Jailbase presents its facial recognition results, but generally facial recognition systems present pictures of people who may appear similar to the person being searched. That does not necessarily mean that the first person in the list is the person who was searched. In other words, this guy is not a terrorist.

I have no idea how strongly Jailbase presents these two cautions to its users. And even if Jailbase does an excellent job in presenting these cautions, will the users necessarily heed the cautions? Or will someone go running down the street with his or her Android phone, yelling, "I found Charles Manson! I found Charles Manson!"?

Now you probably have equally similar examples from your own industry, in which publicly available information can be used intelligently by the public - or can be used stupidly by the public.
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