Boston Globe: Police to get an iPhone app for fighting crime, Brockton PD to use iPhone face scans

The Brockton Police Department will debut a new identification tool on city streets this fall that uses iPhone technology to scan human facial characteristics and send them to a secure database for comparison. The mobile, wireless, multi-modal biometric offender recognition and information system, called MORIS, can also perform iris and fingerprint scans, going a long way toward helping to fight and deter crime, officials say. It can also clear people erroneously accused of a crime. Civil libertarians, however, wonder whether the application will have an impact on individual rights and have asked for more information.

There are too many unknowns, said American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Laura Rotolo. Evidence shows that facial recognition technology, especially in the field, is unreliable, she said. “This is an experiment using the people of Brockton as guinea pigs.’’ Introduced by Biometric Intelligence & Identification Technologies of Plymouth, the application should be made available by September to all 14 sheriff’s departments in the state, and up to 28 police departments.

It is being funded through a $200,000 federal grant distributed through the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association and the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department. The system will help law enforcement agencies keep track of sex offenders, gang members, inmates, and others, said John Birtwell, spokesman for Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald. Birtwell said the application’s sleeve slides over the Apple iPhone and then records fingerprints, iris scans, and faces. “We’ve been doing biometrics, or taking photographs and fingerprints, for 150 years,’’ Birtwell said. “But this device will allow you to take photos out in the field. It’s so sophisticated it’s like creating a GPS, or a road map, of the face.’’

Using MORIS, a police officer can take a picture of a suspect and then know immediately if the person has a record. It can also be used to clear up misunderstandings, for example, with drivers who are stopped without a license on them, Birtwell said.

Rotolo has requested records and the contract with Biometric Intelligence & Identification Technologies under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. She wants to know more about the program, its cost, whom it will affect, and whether information that is gathered will be shared with other local or federal law enforcement agencies. “It seems like a situation where the technology is leading it,’’ she said. “The government just knows where we are at all times.’’ Birtwell acknowledged that the ACLU certainly has a legitimate concern. Technology is so advanced, “Google
can basically drive down your road, take a picture of your house, and post it on its page,’’ he said. However, no one will be randomly photographed, he said: “All probable cause protections remain in place. People don’t need to worry about being scooped up.’’ He and others said Brockton was chosen to premiere the software because it is a “hardscrabble’’ city that has had to cut millions from its operating expenses, requiring its reduced number of officers to “work smarter and faster’’ to fight rising crime.

In a statement, Brockton Police Chief William K. Conlon characterized the program as a cutting-edge means of enhancing the capabilities of existing fingerprint and iris recognition systems. “With the addition of MORIS, our officers will be able to enroll and compare the unique descriptive features contained in the face against a database of individuals to determine identity and criminal information in
seconds, out in the community,’’ he said. Brockton will start the program with one or two devices out on the streets, “but ultimately Chief Conlon wants to get them into every cruiser,’’ Birtwell said.

Similarly, James F. Walsh, executive director of the state sheriffs group, said MORIS will not only improve sheriffs’ capabilities, but also law enforcement statewide, who can all use and share the technology to keep citizens safe. The iPhones will tie in to Plymouth County’s database of inmates, Brockton’s booking desk, and eventually one that is statewide, said Sean Mullin, president and chief executive officer of the Plymouth technology company. “There is plenty of case law to show that photos are taken of us wherever we go,’’ Mullin said. “But here, they
will only be taken with your knowledge, probable cause, and, often, with your consent.’’ The genius behind MORIS is that information can be shared quickly and securely, he said. And the basic properties of physics make it impossible to use the devices covertly, or from a distance, which he said he hoped would quell concerns. Such capabilities, up to now, have been the stuff of science fiction novels and movies, and entertaining but
unrealistic crime shows on television, he said. “MORIS is about to change all that.’’ Representatives from Brockton and the other law enforcement agencies planned to meet this week to update one another on progress with in-service training, Mullin said.

By mid-August, the county database should have been completely converted, “and then we’ll be ready to start beta-testing in the field and do training,’’ Mullin said. “My guess is after Labor Day it will be fully implemented and go live.’’

By Michele Morgan Bolton, Globe Correspondent | July 15, 2010

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at

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