Facial Recognition Software Prompts Privacy, Racism Concerns in Cities and States

Fabian Rogers was none too pleased when the landlord of his rent-stabilized Brooklyn high-rise announced plans to swap out key fobs for a facial recognition system.

He had so many questions: What happened if he didn’t comply? Would he be evicted? And as a young black man, he worried that his biometric data would end up in a police lineup without him ever being arrested. Most of the building’s tenants are people of color, he said, and they already are concerned about overpolicing in their New York neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of scariness that comes with this,” said Rogers, 24, who along with other tenants is trying to legally block his management company from installing the technology.

“You feel like a guinea pig,” Rogers said. “A test subject for this technology.”

Amid privacy concerns and recent research showing racial disparities in the accuracy of facial recognition technology, some city and state officials are proposing to limit its use.

Law enforcement officials say facial recognition software can be an effective crime-fighting tool, and some landlords say it could enhance security in their buildings. But civil liberties activists worry that vulnerable populations such as residents of public housing or rent-stabilized apartments are at risk for law enforcement overreach.

“This is a very dangerous technology,” said Reema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Facial recognition is different from other technologies. You can identify someone from afar. They may never know. And you can do it on a massive scale.”

The earliest forms of facial recognition technology originated in the 1990s, and local law enforcement began using it in 2009. Today, its use has expanded to companies such as Facebook and Apple.

Such software uses biometrics to read the geometry of faces found in a photograph or video and compare the images to a database of other facial images to find a match. It’s used to verify personal identity — the FBI, for example, has access to 412 million facial images.

“Our industry certainly needs to do a better job of helping educate the public how the technology works and how it’s used,” said Jake Parker, senior director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, a trade association based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“Any technology has the potential to be misused,” Parker said. “But in the United States, we have a number of constitutional protections that limit what the government can do.”

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Atlanta Man Sentenced for Aggravated Identity Theft

The headquarters of a large national bank had detected fraud on an account and sent word to an Atlanta branch to be on alert: If an individual comes in to pick up the new debit card linked to that account, call the Atlanta Police Department.

An alert bank employee did just that when Khoi Nguyen, 43, came in to the branch to claim the debit card. Officers arrived quickly to ask Nguyen about his identity and the name on the bank account. Upon questioning, Nguyen produced a Department of Defense identification badge and claimed to be in law enforcement.

The police weren’t buying it, so they called the FBI to investigate Nguyen for impersonating a federal law enforcement officer. It was soon discovered that he was not only impersonating a government official but more than a dozen different people in a sophisticated identity theft scheme.

“In his bag at arrest were 20 cellular phones, 13 different identifications, a number of credit cards, and about $11,000 in cash,” said Special Agent Marcus Brackman, who worked the case out of the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office.

Brackman said that Nguyen had some technical skills and likely purchased the stolen personal information he used to create fake documents and open fraudulent financial accounts off encrypted websites. “Criminals can buy identities for 50 cents on the dark web,” Brackman explained.

Nguyen pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and was sentenced in October 2018 to two years in federal prison for his crime. He was also ordered to pay restitution to the financial institution and is facing additional state charges related to similar alleged activity in other areas of the country.

“Identity theft is very prevalent,” said Brackman. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 26 million people age 16 or older in the United States experienced some form of identity theft in 2016—with many of those cases involving the misuse of a credit card or bank account. Brackman said that it was gratifying to hold someone responsible for a crime that affects so many people and creates such a headache for victims.

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The FBI’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratories Are Vital in the Digital Age

Technology and connected devices touch nearly every facet of modern life, and they often hold key evidence in criminal investigations. “Every single case now involves some sort of digital evidence,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Steven Newman, director of the New Jersey Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (NJRCFL).

Digital evidence can be on any device and can follow subjects almost anywhere they traverse in the cyber world. As such, digital evidence is key in Internet-enabled crimes, but it is also critical in cases that range from terrorism to fraud.

In May 2018, three New Jersey men were sentenced to prison for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. The FBI became aware of the men’s activities through a tip from an informant, according to Special Agent Suzanne Walsh with the FBI’s Newark Field Office.

Once that tip was deemed credible, digital evidence became key to investigating the men’s motives. The digital evidence left on the suspects’ computers and phones was crucial to showing criminal intent in the actions the men took—from planning to travel overseas to viewing ISIS propaganda online.

Alaa Saadeh, who was 24 at the time of sentencing, was given 15 years for his crimes. The evidence investigators uncovered showed he was actively planning to join ISIS and had supported his brother’s travel, both financially and logistically, to pursue that same goal.

Alaa’s brother, Nader Saadeh, 23 at sentencing, was given 10 years; and a third man, Samuel Rahamin Topaz, 24 at sentencing, was given eight years. The evidence showed all three had viewed ISIS materials, maps, and videos, including videos that depicted executions. Their communications also contained evidence that showed their desire to join ISIS and revealed some of the efforts they took to conceal their activities.

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Monthlong Sweep Targeted Sex Traffickers, Recovery of Minors

A month long FBI-led operation to identify and arrest sex traffickers and recover child victims has resulted in dozens of arrests across the country and the identification and recovery of more than 100 juveniles.

The initiative during the month of July, dubbed Operation Independence Day, relied on more than 400 law enforcement agencies working on FBI Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Forces in each of the Bureau’s 56 field offices. The sweep included undercover operations and has led to the opening of five dozen federal criminal investigations. Agents and analysts at FBI Headquarters and in the field worked closely with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) to identify young runaways, missing kids, and juveniles who may have been subjected to human trafficking.

In all, 103 juveniles were identified or recovered and 67 suspected traffickers were arrested. The sweep resulted in 60 new federal investigations.

“The FBI is fiercely focused on recovering child victims and arresting the sex traffickers who exploit them,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “Through operations like this, the FBI helps child victims escape the abusive life of sex trafficking.”

In past years, the FBI initiated weeklong coordinated nationwide sweeps under the name Operation Cross Country to arrest traffickers and recover underage victims. This year, FBI field offices had a longer time window to plan and execute operations as part of the national initiative, with the goal being to develop richer leads and intelligence, and more robust cases.

“We are here to rescue children, and we are here to build good cases against traffickers,” said Jeanette Milazzo, a special agent who led one of the Houston Field Office’s task force operations in early July. In that operation, undercover officers from the Houston Police Department scanned social media and escort sites looking for what appeared to be juveniles advertising for commercial sex. They set up fake dates, met at pre-arranged locations, and then brought individuals (and their pimps in some cases) in for interviews to determine if they were underage or trafficked or if they could help identify other victims or traffickers. In each case, FBI victim specialists ensure the individuals understand their situation and are made aware of the resources available to help them.

“If we have developed enough rapport with the victim, we build a case against their trafficker and hopefully charge them in federal court,” Milazzo said.

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Military Fraudster Sentenced

The charity sounded like a worthy and patriotic cause—an organization that would send military families on Disney vacations and pay travel costs for families to see their loved ones graduate from boot camp in South Carolina and California.

But the charity, known as “Marines and Mickey” was simply a front that fraudster John Shannon Simpson used to enrich himself. Thanks to an FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation, Simpson is now serving a prison sentence.

“Simpson presented himself as a retired master sergeant in the Marines, and people believed him. They had no reason to question a U.S. Marine,” said Special Agent Tiffany Baker, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s Bluffton Resident Agency, which is part of the Columbia Field Office.

In fact, Simpson was actually a lower-level rank than he claimed, and he was court-martialed for going AWOL.

But claiming to be associated with the Marine Corps gave Simpson credibility, and donors gave nearly half a million dollars to his charity from its founding in 2014 until 2016.

Simpson befriended a Gold Star mother who had lost her son in a shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2015. Simpson and the Gold Star mother collaborated on fundraisers for Marines and Mickey.

People who knew the mother became suspicious of Marines and Mickey and dug into Simpson’s military record. A friend of hers contacted the FBI, who began looking into the charity.

While the purported charity claimed that 100 percent of funds were directed to help military families, investigators found that less than 20 percent of the donations were actually used for that purpose. Most of the money was simply pocketed for Simpson’s daily living expenses.

“Simpson even hosted a fundraiser that was to send a Marine’s child who was sick with cancer to Disney,” Baker said. “In fact, he did not direct any money toward that family.”

But Simpson was a good salesman. He knew enough about the military to ingratiate himself with Marines and their families. And for a long time, no one, including his volunteers, had any reason to question his military record or how he was spending the money he raised.

“It’s such an affront to the Marine Corps values that someone had the audacity to take advantage of their service members for financial gain—while pretending to have those same military values himself when he did not,” Baker said. “It’s just a really egregious case.”

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