Tribune Editorial: Facial recognition search? Get a warrant.

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 7, 2019, is a security camera in the Financial District of San Francisco. San Francisco is on track to become the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other city agencies as the technology creeps increasingly into daily life. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Utah officials are denying reports from the Washington Post and New York Times that they’ve given FBI and ICE authorities permission to “mine” the state’s database of driver license photos.

The truth is that the state does the mining for them.

And they’re not just doing it for the feds. The Utah Department of Public Safety confirmed that it has been doing 18 searches a week — mostly for Utah law enforcement. The department says it insists on law enforcement having an active case, including a case number, before performing such searches.

"Governor Herbert believes in respecting the privacy of Utah residents and he is committed to ensuring that Utah’s facial recognition system will only be used for law enforcement purposes and never against law abiding Utahns," the governor's office said in a statement.

That statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how a database search works. We’re not talking about police simply being able to access driver license information, which they need and use often to do their jobs. This is about using an imperfect algorithm to search a database of everyone with a driver license. Facial recognition software is not foolproof, and the possibility of unintentionally putting “law abiding Utahns” in law enforcement’s crosshairs is unavoidable.

Let’s say law enforcement — federal or state — has a photo of a suspect in a crime. Maybe it’s a security camera shot. They send it to DPS, which compares it against the driver license database. If it produces a match, the law enforcement agency is given the information of whoever is the match. (This DPS statement says there were 10 such matches in the searches they did for ICE.)

But DPS’ statement indicates it has no idea what happens after that. "The results of a submission are for lead purposes only, and any further confirmation as to the identity of the submission shall be the sole responsibility of the requestor."

In other words, DPS returns results that may immediately identify someone as a possible criminal suspect based on nothing more than facial recognition, and then it washes its hands. DPS doesn’t know if the person identified was ever really a suspect at all, and it takes no responsibility for finding out.

Any one of us who have driver licenses could come under suspicion of committing a crime based on nothing more than a software match, and that possibility is happening almost three times a day.

Sure. Most of the time it will be easy for police to spot false positives. They often can do it without the false suspect ever knowing. But in some cases the false positives will force innocent people to prove their innocence.

Oh, and guess which group has the lowest rate of false positives: white males. If you’re female or a person of color, the chances of being falsely accused rise.

Crimefighting is tough, and facial recognition can be a legitimate tool in law enforcement’s box. But simply having an open case is too low of a threshold to put Utahns at risk of unjustified police investigations. Like police wiretaps, such searches have a higher risk of being unjustly invasive. So, like wiretaps, any facial recognition search of Utah’s driver license photos should require a search warrant signed by a judge. Processes already are in place to make sure such warrants can be signed quickly when necessary.

What’s more, Utahns should have had a full-throated public discussion before these searches began. These aren’t just our faces. They are our civil liberties.