Exclusive: Live Facial Recognition Is Coming to U.S. Police Body Cameras

Police cam manufacturer Wolfcom has contracts with 1,500 organizations

Source: Wolfcom

WWolfcom, a company that makes technology for police, is pitching body cameras with live facial recognition to law enforcement groups across the United States, OneZero has learned. It’s a move that pushes against industry norms: Axon, the largest manufacturer of body cameras in the United States, declared last year that it would not put the invasive technology in its hardware, citing “serious ethical concerns.” NEC, which sells live facial recognition elsewhere in the world, has also not sold it to U.S. law enforcement.

Wolfcom claims to have sold body cameras to at least 1,500 police departments, universities, and federal organizations across the country. It has been developing live facial recognition for the Halo, Wolfcom’s newest body camera model, according to documents and a video obtained by OneZero through public records requests.

This new initiative makes Wolfcom the first major body camera provider in the United States to pursue live facial recognition, a controversial stance given a nationwide push from privacy advocates to ban the technology.

The company originally started as a spy equipment manufacturer and paintball retailer based in Hollywood.

“With Realtime Facial Recognition, WOLFCOM hopes to give our friends in Law Enforcement tools that will help them identify if the person they are talking to is a wanted suspect, a missing child or adult, or a person of interest,” Wolfcom founder Peter Austin Onruang wrote in a May 14, 2019, email to the Noble Police Department in Oklahoma.

The email also contained a link to a video demonstration of facial recognition already running on a body camera. In the video, three people stand side by side. As they enter the body camera’s field of vision, a nearby computer monitor shows a graphic over the live video, guessing their age, gender, and facial expression and announcing if they are a missing person, have an outstanding warrant, or are wanted for felony assault.

In the May 2019 email, Onruang asked police departments to help test the facial recognition software. Other emails obtained by OneZero between Wolfcom and police departments in Los Lunas, New Mexico, and Bakersfield, California, as well as the Hardin County Sheriff’s Department in Ohio, show similar messages sent in May.

Source: Noble Police Department

Wolfcom is now moving forward with beta testing with at least one known police department. A representative with the Los Lunas Police Department told OneZero that it decided on March 4, 2020, to go through with the test and was in the process of installing the software onto an Android phone that would pair with a Wolfcom body camera. Two officers will test the software.

In February 2020, Wolfcom posted a password-protected download link for a facial recognition app for use on Android phones. The company’s website now says its Halo camera is “ready for facial recognition.” But it could be in use elsewhere in the country, as the website says the app has been downloaded six times.

For now, it seems the beta test is slightly less real-time than the company’s marketing video would suggest. Officers will be able to take a picture with the Halo camera and upload it to the Wolfcom body camera app in the field.

“Let’s say a police officer in Arizona two months ago had taken a photo of this guy. It would recognize that and then tell our officer, ‘Hey, you know what? This guy was in Arizona for maybe battery against a police officer,’” Lieutenant Jose Hernandez, of the Los Lunas Police Department, told OneZero. However, it’s not clear which databases the Wolfcom software would be searching or whether it would be able to access information from multiple police departments.

Wolfcom didn’t make promises about the facial recognition’s accuracy or say who else would be part of the beta test, according to Hernandez, but the company said participants in the beta program would be able to use the facial recognition service for free in the future.

“Say three years from now, if it’s something that gets big and everyone’s using it… we don’t have to pay the thousands of dollars. We would already have access to it for free,” Hernandez said. “We really don’t have to do anything other than just change a cellphone over from an iPhone to an Android phone and upload their app.”

Though the beta functionality is limited, Wolfcom has shown off plans to implement its technology with live video feeds as well. Mohamed Thoyyib, Wolfcom’s chief technology officer, shared a demonstration video on Twitter of a next-generation “command center system” that tracked officers in real time and could tap into their body camera video feeds.

Wolfcom did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a February email to the Los Lunas Police Department, the company’s communications specialist said it had no obligation to respond to OneZero’s press inquiries, according to records obtained via a public records request.

Wolfcom wasn’t always in the body camera business. The company originally started as a spy equipment manufacturer and paintball retailer based in Hollywood. The company manufactured surveillance products under the name Asianwolf, though the website for that brand no longer exists. “Whether you want to set up a security system using a DVR and cameras, buy a car alarm and accessories for the safety and protection of your vehicle, or make a weekend trip out to a paintball field, Wolfcom is where you will want to go,” a 2008 video on the company’s YouTube page says.

Wolfcom is short for “Wolf Commander,” according to the company’s website: “A Wolf is a natural born leader and survivor. Wolves have the ability to work together in a pack or alone. They know how to lead, follow and command. When the leader is killed, another takes his place and so on until the last remaining Wolf.”

The company started making body cameras in 2011, but Wolfcom CEO Tiffany Wang told the International Business Times in 2015 that the body cam business took off after Ferguson police killed Michael Brown in 2014.

“We started getting calls coming in constantly,” Wang said.

Wolfcom’s Hollywood spy shop appears to have shut down around 2015. It had 1.5 stars on Yelp.

Today, the company is based in a small, out-of-the way office in Pasadena, California, and claims to have sold more than 1,000,000 body cameras to 1,500 agencies in more than 35 countries. The company has won a smattering of work for the federal government, most regularly with the Department of Defense, earning about $100,000 since 2014.

Wolfcom offices. Source: Google Maps

There are still unanswered questions about Wolfcom’s live facial recognition software. The company has made no claims about how accurate its software actually is or what databases it accesses to match suspects. It’s unclear whether the company made the facial recognition algorithm itself or is licensing it from a third party. And as for the beta test, it’s unknown how many police departments have opted in to trial the technology.

But what we do know is that Wolfcom is moving forward with the technology anyway.

“We are always trying to create tools that would help a police officer assess each individual in real time,” Wolfcom’s facial recognition demo video says.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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