Access to ‘Gateway’ scaled back

Decisions by local law enforcement officials have played a crucial role in allowing the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to pare back user access to its facial recognition program by around 80 percent since introducing it more than a year ago.

But concern remains that access-currently hovering around 5,600 officers across the state- is still too broad and could lead to misuse and privacy violations.

Deployed in June 2013 as part of the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway (OHLEG), the feature gave approximately 30,000 OHLEG users the ability to upload a photo of a person to be compared with a database of drivers’ licenses and mug shots.

The Bureau of Criminal Investigation first scaled back access to the feature by cutting out of state and non-law enforcement OHLEG accounts out of the user field, said Tom Stickrath, superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

The bureau then put further restrictions in the hands of local department heads, he said.

“On March 4, I sent a letter to all the police chiefs and sheriffs in Ohio and essentially said to them ‘You need to look at your roster of OHLEG users and determine who really uses facial recognition,” said Stickrath.

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said he assigned Captain Troy Hawkins with whittling down the list of users. That list ended up being supervisors in the criminal division, said Hawkins.

“The idea was that we don’t want everybody running this stuff. If a regular deputy needs to run (a facial recognition match), he needs to go to his supervisor,” said Hawkins.

The list cuts access to facial recognition to approximately a dozen of the more than 40 employees in the criminal division. But Hawkins does not believe anyone in the office has used the capability, he said.

In Beverly, Chief Mark Sams restricted access to the feature to himself and one other officer, but neither have used the feature beyond training on it, said Sams.

Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick was not available for comment on the authorized users Wednesday, but Patrolman Rhett Walters said he believed all officers had access to the system.

The system helps officers generate a list of suspects by allowing a photo or description of a suspect to be uploaded into the system, which will then generate a list of potential matches based on state license photos and mug shots, said Walters.

“You get a description of a suspect or have a suspect on security footage. You put in those parameters and get a list of possible suspects,” he explained.

While Walters and other Marietta officers have used the system to generate such lists, he was uncertain if the lists had led to any arrests.

Belpre Police Chief Ernie Clevenger said none of his staff had access to the feature.

The Attorney General’s Office said local department’s facial recognition user rosters are not subject to public information requests.

Among those who have had access removed were out-of-state OHLEG users, such as law enforcement officials in neighboring counties. For example, the Parkersburg Police Department likely has access to OHLEG but no longer can use the facial component, said Stickrath.

Ohio OHLEG users that have lost use of the feature include court employees, such as those who perform pre-sentence investigations on criminal defendants. Also cut were OHLEG users employed by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, a total of 2,802 searches were conducted in the first six months of this year, compared with 6,607 during the last seven months of 2013.

But even with the scaled back use, Ohio allows a broader user base than any other state using the technology, noted Robin Bozian, an attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services.

“In Michigan they don’t allow it at all for a variety of reasons. They believe people have a fundamental right to privacy,” said Bozian.

In Pennsylvania, around 500 people have access to the system. And in Kentucky, that number is limited to 34 state agents.

As with anything, greater access means greater potential for abuse, said Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, who thinks the state needs to keep a close eye on the feature.

“Anytime a business or the government has a lot of data collected in one place, there’s a big responsibility to protect that…I’m not sure we’ve hit the right balance yet and I’d like to keep exploring that,” said Phillips.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he is comfortable limited use to law enforcement.

“I have confidence that law enforcement will restrict access appropriately,” said Thompson.

But he also favors monitoring the program and adjusting accordingly if signs of abuse crop up, he said.

Restricting access was part of a series of recommendations made by an advisory group tasked by Attorney General Mike DeWine with improving and securing OHLEG.

Other recommendations, which are currently in the process of being implemented, include forming a staff of field auditors who will conduct random investigations on OHLEG usage, said Stickrath.

“We’ve always done audits, but they were based on cause. If we had reason to believe there was misuse, we investigated. We weren’t really doing what I would call front end random audits. We’ve now hired a staff to do that,” he said.