Is Facial Recognition Helping Solve Crimes in Hennepin County or Threatening Privacy?



Video cameras are becoming omnipresent in our lives, especially in urban areas – at traffic lights, in parking lots, at business entrances, etc. If you feel like Big Brother is tracking you everywhere you go, you may not be far from wrong.

Since 2013, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has been using facial recognition software as an investigative tool, gathering images and videos from locations near crime scenes and passing the images through facial recognition software to identify possible suspects. Is facial recognition helping solve crimes in Hennepin County or threatening privacy?

A Hidden Law Enforcement Tool

Software engineer and journalist Tony Webster would argue the latter, and he’s been fighting to gain access to public records to learn just how extensive the use of facial recognition software is in Hennepin County. Earlier this summer, the court ordered the sheriff’s office to turn over email records regarding the use of facial recognition software.

Webster learned that since 2013 the sheriff’s office has been creating three-dimensional maps of jail inmates’ facial features for a facial recognition database using software from Cognitec, a German company. After the court order, Sheriff Rich Stanek issued a statement saying the office didn’t disclose use of the software because it didn’t want criminals to be aware of it.

“We attempt to match unknown criminal suspects to a database of public Hennepin County booking photos, which are public information,” he said. “In the sheriff’s office, we do not gather or retain photos real-time from cameras in the community. [This is not] real-time automatic facial recognition to create a database of everywhere you go.”

Privately Owned Video Camera Registry

However, since 2015, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and the Minneapolis Police Department have subscribed to services called SafeLink and VideoLink from Securonet. A Minnesota-based company, Securonet provides local companies the opportunity to register their privately owned video cameras, giving law enforcement easier access. SafeLink is the registration branch, and VideoLink gives access to real-time video streams. Reports indicate that 400 video cameras, half privately owned, currently are registered, but the emails indicate some 3,000 more cameras are in their way into the system.

Law enforcement always had the opportunity to track down these cameras and review their footage, but linking the cameras into one location and combining them with facial recognition software gives law enforcement a powerful tool to identify suspects.

Expanding the Database

The emails also indicate Hennepin County has sought to expand its capability by seeking state records, but the state balked at providing Minnesota Repository of Arrest Photos (MRAP) and driver’s license and state ID photos. Hennepin County also has asked for access to booking photos from surrounding counties, though their cooperation is still unsure. Hennepin County did request an upgrade in its contract with Cognitec to expand its database from 1.2 million faces to 2.5 million.

Little Regulatory Control

While the public may be all in favor of law enforcement using facial recognition software to solve crimes, at this point there is very little regulation over how the software can be used. Hennepin County developed a policy when it adopted the software in 2013 stating it could be used only for criminal investigations, but the policy creates no accountability measures through audits, reporting, secure storage requirements or information-sharing procedures.

Again, the emails indicate the county has had discussion of using the real-time capability of the facial recognition software for major events, such as the 2018 Super Bowl scheduled at the U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could classify as a National Special Security Event.

While these issues are likely to play out among law enforcement and lawmakers, judges will be faced with determining whether the use of this technology falls within current laws. If you have a criminal prosecution that involves facial recognition software, you need to have an experienced criminal defense attorney who can address this issue. Contact us for a free consultation to see how we can protect your best interests.

Disclaimer: The content of this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please contact Jennifer Speas to discuss the specifics of your case.