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Facial Recognition Used to ID Washington, D.C., Protester

U.S. Park Police officers pushed protesters back from Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square on June 1, firing pepper balls and rolling canisters spewing irritant gas into the retreating crowds. Amid screams and smoke, a man in a tie-dye T-shirt pulled an officer to the ground and punched him in the face before disappearing into the chaos. The man grabbed another officer before police caught up with him and attempted to make an arrest. He wrestled free and vanished again. The protester might never have been identified, but an officer found his image on Twitter and fed it into a facial recognition system. They found a match and made an arrest, reports the Washington Post. It was the first public acknowledgment that authorities used the controversial technology in connection with the widely criticized sweep of largely peaceful protesters ahead of a photo op by President Donald Trump.

The case is one of a growing number nationwide in which authorities used facial recognition software to help identify protesters accused of violence. The case provides the first detailed look at a regional facial recognition system that has been used 12,000 times since 2019 and contains a database of 1.4 million people. Fourteen agencies have access. Defense attorneys and facial recognition experts were unaware of the existence of the National Capital Region Facial Recognition Investigative Leads System (NCRFRILS). Several said the Lafayette Square case was the first time they had seen its use disclosed to a defendant after thousands of searches in bank robberies, human trafficking and gang cases. Privacy advocates say the facial recognition’s use to identify protesters and the secrecy about NCRFRILS could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights and leave defendants unable to challenge a match because its use usually is not disclosed.