The New York Times paints a creepy picture this week of facial recognition software, a tool developed by military intelligence to help identify terrorists that’s now being used by police, including the San Diego Police Department.

Facial recognition technology gives police the ability to photograph a person’s face, run it through a database of hundreds of thousands San Diego mugshots, and match it to features of someone they’ve stopped.

An aside in the Times story caught my eye (emphasis mine):

Here, beat cops, detectives and even school police officers have been using hand-held devices to create a vast database of tens of thousands of photos of people …

So does this mean that in addition to SDPD cops using the technology on people it suspects of crimes, San Diego Unified, which has its own police force, is using the software too? Turns out, that’s exactly what it means.

District spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer said San Diego Unified was given facial recognition devices by the Automated Regional Justice Information System, a network of law enforcement agencies in San Diego County that share information.

San Diego Unified police officers have only used the devices on a handful of occasions, and only for adults who have been part of criminal investigations, Kroemer said.

“We have no plans to expand our use of the device; more specifically, we have no plans and/or interest in photographing students and uploading their pictures,” she wrote in an email.

But neither does the district have a policy that outlines limits of its use. Members of the school board did not approve use of the technology, and parents didn’t hear about it before it came into the district.

That’s what concerns Victor Manuel Torres, a San Diego civil rights attorney. Torres was also quoted in the New York Times story, which drew backlash from the SDPD for what an official said were inaccurate claims about how the technology is used.

Still, Torres sees a potential civil rights issue in the fact that the district is using it without a written policy.

“If they don’t have a policy, what’s to stop them tomorrow from saying it’s OK to take pictures of high school seniors – or a parent driving up to pick his son up from school?” he said.

Who has access to images taken on school district property, and for what purposes the information is used, are legitimate questions for the future use of facial recognition technology in the school district – even if its use is currently limited.

But it also underscores a larger disconnect between the school district, its police department and parents.

Last year, San Diego Unified made national headlines after inewsource discovered the district received a $730,000, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle as part of a federal military equipment surplus program. After parents and community members protested, the district returned the MRAP.

In 2013, school board member John Lee Evans raised questions after learning through media that school police officers were carrying assault rifles. Neither the school board nor parents got a chance to weigh in on the MRAP or the assault rifles.

Torres is concerned school police may have other tools that parents aren’t aware of.

“These are just things we know about,” he said. “This is really just the tip of the iceberg.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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