Secrecy Plagues Potentially Good Programs

It’s hard to imagine what Attorney General Mike DeWine was thinking when he allowed his office to withhold knowledge of the state’s facial recognition program for more than two months.

It’s hard to imagine what Attorney General Mike DeWine was thinking when he allowed his office to withhold knowledge of the state’s facial recognition program for more than two months. What seems like a perfectly sensible law enforcement tool is now mired in controversy thanks to the unnecessary secrecy.

The program allows police to use a simple photo to search the state’s databases of mug shots and driver’s licenses for a name and contact information. Previously, police needed a name or address to get someone’s contact information. The idea is to make it so photos — perhaps from surveillance cameras — are enough to identify a suspect if the quality of the picture is good enough.

The program, which is already used by most states, seems like a good idea, but it turns out DeWine had the program running for two-plus months and 2,677 searches before it was formally unveiled to the public. During that time period, no independent group reviewed the program’s privacy-protecting protocols, which means the rules could be inadequate and the program might be ripe for abuse.

Had DeWine been paying attention to the national headlines when he kept the program a secret? In the past few months, President Barack Obama’s administration has been heavily criticized for secretive surveillance programs that allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify and hunt potential terrorists and criminals. 

The criticisms haven’t focused so much on the programs themselves as much as their complete lack of transparency and checks on power — two factors that have led some civil libertarians to fear that the federal government will abuse its newfound power, just like other governments have done in the past when given new, unchecked tools.

The similarities are obvious. Just like U.S. surveillance problems, it’s possible and even likely that the facial recognition program is helping catch bad guys. But Americans don’t appreciate one man or office holding all the strings to a secret program. For the most part, the country knows that’s an established recipe for corruption.

Even Gov. John Kasich, perhaps in a moment of presidential ambition, directly compared the U.S. surveillance programs to DeWine’s facial recognition scheme. Speaking to reporters on Aug. 30, Kasich echoed concerns often raised by civil libertarians on the left end of the political spectrum.

But concerns about secrecy should have been obvious even if DeWine was only paying attention to state headlines. In the past month, JobsOhio, the privatized development agency established by Republicans to replace the Ohio Department of Development, has been criticized for its secretive nature after Dayton Daily News and the Associated Press uncovered that the agency was recommending tax credits for companies with direct financial ties to JobsOhio board members and the governor.

Corruption is a key factor in Americans’ and Ohioans’ skepticism toward these programs. Ever since Watergate, the country has been hyper-aware of what public officials can do when they fear losing power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes.

But there’s also the issue of incompetence. It wasn’t too long ago that some states enforced racial segregation while the federal government allowed it. For decades, the federal government has cracked down on marijuana, a drug that kills zero people each year and is considerably less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. Just this year, it was revealed that the Cincinnati office for the Internal Revenue Service was unfairly targeting tea party groups through special identifiers established through sheer laziness and a lack of adequate resources. 

Does anyone really want these same people to have unchecked access to powerful law enforcement tools?

A vivid imagination isn’t necessary to think up how low-level corruption or incompetence could lead someone to abuse DeWine’s facial recognition program. One example: A cop could take a picture of a potential love interest in the street and use it to find the person’s contact and background information, therefore enabling some off-the-job creeping.

There very well could be protections against that sort of abuse right now. But by keeping the program secret and unchecked, DeWine has raised a slew of perhaps unnecessary doubts that discredit his office and the program.

The good news is DeWine is handling the public criticism respectably. He already appointed a panel of judges, public defenders, law enforcement and other public safety officials to review the program. The group will have 60 days to come up with its findings and recommendations.

For the sake of DeWine and those who have already been searched under the program, Ohioans should hope the findings are squeaky clean.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: [email protected] or @germanrlopez

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