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The Caucus

In focus: Pittsburgh and Lancaster's approaches to facial recognition technology


Surveillance cameras on East Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh are among those put up around the area by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office.

Cybersecurity advocates and civil libertarians have been raising alarms about a secretive camera surveillance network run by the Allegheny County District Attorney since details about the network emerged this summer.

Turns out, the DA's own employees were voicing their own concerns at least three years before that, according to emails obtained through the state's Right-to-Know Law.

Concerns arose when District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. wanted to contract with a facial recognition firm, Biometrica, after meeting the firm's CEO on Aug. 10, 2016, according to an email from his assistant to an inspector in the office, Darrel Parker. In the email, the assistant wrote that Zappala wanted to make sure their products were compatible with the Pennsylvania Justice Network, or JNET, a data-sharing system operated by Pennsylvania's Office of Administration that includes an enormous facial-recognition system.

Biometrica's partnerships with law enforcement agencies give it access to their criminal booking photos and, in exchange, grants the agencies access to Biometrica's larger database of images, said Ka Murali, Biometrica's chief privacy officer.

"It's a multijurisdictional database," Murali said. It doesn't function as a real-time tracking tool, and "you have to be arrested to be in it."

JNET, however, includes a database of 35 million images of people, including driver's license photos from PennDOT, according to JNET's most recent annual report. Unlike Biometrica's database, you don't have to be arrested to be included.

"A private company trying to gain access to these abilities is a direct violation of (Criminal History Record Information Act) standards. And the inclusion of juvenile information is not permitted by law," Parker wrote to Zappala's assistant, Laurie Delaney, on Aug. 19, 2016.

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"There is also a federal code (28 CFR Part 23) that would be violated with the sharing and dissemination of intelligence material. I don't want to see Mr. Z exposed to any of these pitfalls," Parker wrote.

The deal with Biometrica fizzled, though it's unclear why. Zappala's office did not respond to questions from The Caucus.

But the idea of deploying real-time facial recognition to the 1,000-camera, five-county network survived in Zappala's office until at least early last year. Dick Skrinjar, a project manager in the DA's office, told Pittsburgh's Downtown Clean + Safe Community Forum last February that the technology would be put to use "down the road."

There are 2,000 public school students on probation, Skrinjar told them.

"We have their pictures," Skrinjar said. "We can put them in the system and restrict where these people go, and keep them out of areas they're not supposed to be in."

That's not something Biometrica would be involved in, Murali said. The company's facial recognition database was originally created as part of an international network meant to combat child trafficking, but it includes images of the traffickers, not the trafficked, she said.

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"We don't do juveniles. We made that clear right at the beginning," Murali said.

Zappala's office has since said that the network doesn't employ facial recognition, and there are no plans to use it, but Skrinjar's comments are one of several aspects of the network that alarm privacy advocates, cybersecurity experts and civil libertarians.

The network uses equipment made by two companies with ties to the Chinese government and military. Those ties, and security vulnerabilities found in the equipment, prompted Congress to declare them national security threats and ban them from federal property.

Zappala also relies on a private contractor to monitor and maintain the network. His office redacted the contractor's name from documents provided to The Caucus in a public records request. The legal argument over the redactions is pending in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, where a hearing is scheduled for March 6.

Lancaster's approach

One way around that, cybersecurity experts say, is to build a network with cameras that aren't so vulnerable to those hackers, be they domestic criminals or foreign intelligence services.

That's the approach the Lancaster Safety Coalition has taken, said the nonprofit's executive director, Tim Miller.

Miller's coalition operates a camera network that spans the city of Lancaster. The network uses cameras made by Bosch and Panasonic "that are a little more expensive maybe, but they're more secure." The coalition also connects its cameras through a closed network of fiber-optic cables, rather than piggybacking off a third party's internet infrastructure or using WiFi-connected cameras, as Zappala does.

And where Zappala's office hides even general information about the cameras' locations, the Lancaster Security Coalition's website provides a street map of Lancaster with the cameras marked by red dots. They've worked with parents to determine which route between home and school will keep their children in front of the most cameras, Miller said.

"There is a real tendency toward a lack of transparency around" camera surveillance systems, Miller said. "That's a no-go for us."

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Prospective Lancaster Security Coalition employees undergo the same security screening as school safety officers, including drug tests and an FBI background check, Miller said. While they're watching video feeds in the coalition's monitoring center, a camera in the monitoring room is recording them, he said. They store that footage for about twice as long as the 14-day storage period for street cameras, Miller said.

The Lancaster coalition's board also dismissed the idea of deploying facial recognition technology in the network, Miller said.

"It's been a pretty consistent place for us since the beginning of the discussion about facial recognition. We could see it was going to become one of the major issues around public safety cameras," Miller said.

Real-time facial recognition systems require a database of people's photos and specialized software to search that database for matches to the images collected by a network's cameras. The idea of a nonprofit maintaining such a database raised too many red flags for the coalition's board of directors, Miller said.

"Preservation of the public trust is exceptionally important to us. We are not a law enforcement entity, and we shouldn't behave as such," Miller said. "We should not have any kind of (image) database. It just seemed like the sort of thing that is a bridge too far."