How Woody Harrelson (Unwittingly) Helped Nab A Shoplifter

It's almost impossible to know which police agencies are using facial recognition, how they're using it, and if they're being honest about it.
How Woody Harrelson (Unwittingly) Helped Nab A Shoplifter

The novelty of facial recognition technology has given police departments a lot of legal and moral wiggling room, with minimal established judicial restraints. And in 2019, a Georgetown report revealed some interesting wigglings by the New York Police Department.

Such as the altering of images by Photoshopping people's faces to generate leads and pinpoint suspects. As per one uncovered example, a police training manual tip recommends that certain facial expressions, the extra expressive ones, be altered to better match mugshot-style database photos:


The photo manipulation can include sitcom-sounding practices, like the copying and pasting of random stock images of eyes and lips onto people's faces. Unsurprisingly, this may confuse the recognition algorithms, so the matches produced by these Frankenstein-ian aesthetic amalgamations may not always be 100% faithful. Also, we're no fancy big-city law folk or anything, but this sounds legally iffy.

But hey, it's not like they're feeding pictures of Woody Harrelson into the facial recognition robot to catch petty crime suspects, right? Right? Actually, that's exactly what the NYPD did. When a detective noticed that a shoplifting suspect resembled noted Hollywood thespian Woodrow Tracy Harrelson, the po-po used a photo of Woody to arrest a guy (the guy responsible or just an unfortunate Woody doppelganger? Who knows) for petit larceny for stealing beer from a CVS.


Seems like a minor crime for such an advanced technique; were they out of people to arrest for dime bags of weed?

Either way, indiscretions like these have made the public untrusting and unreceptive of such technologies. And with the lack of federal regulations, it's almost impossible to know which police agencies are using facial recognition, how they're using it, and if they're being honest about it. Or if they're searching photos against solely their criminal database or private photos, like those on driver's licenses, which are not considered public records.

Personally, we assumed that secret agencies had been trading our info and photos for a long time now, so it's not so much of a shock. Plus, some argue this is a slippery slope and Pandora's box all in one: if these technologies become more widely used, who knows how invasive and pervasive they'll become. Plus, what other privacy-encroaching techniques may be introduced, as law enforcement agencies adopt futuristic tech advancements? No one wants to get charged with thought crimes for scoffing at YouTube ads for crappy alcoholic seltzers.

Due to concerns over abuse, racism, and privacy, San Francisco banned the use of police facial recognition in May 2019. It was the first city to do so, and since then, more than 15 cities and a couple of states, Vermont and Virginia, have banned its use in some capacity

Others call for outright bans, but technologies usually aren't inherently evil (Mecha-Hitler excluded), and this is potentially an effective crime-fighting tool. It's solved numerous murders (and serial murders), busted human trafficking attempts, found missing persons, and, on slower days, nabbed shoplifters and porch pirates. Plus, overall, f-rec is being used quite a bit: there were 8,000 associated cases in 2018, and more than 2,800 related arrests were made between 2010 and 2016. 

So, if abuse is somehow prevented, facial recognition could offer an indispensable tool in future crime-fighting endeavors. One that could crack cold cases, thwart violent crimes, and bring justicial wrath upon the vile, writhing scumbags who litter White Claw cans on nature trails.

Top Image: LBJ Library

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