ACLU files public records requests to learn more about Lakeland's facial recognition camera system

LAKELAND, Fla. - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is sounding the alarm on downtown Lakeland's facial recognition camera system. The cameras --which are being installed -- are meant to deter crime, but the non-profit states they violate people's privacy.

The ACLU and ACLU of Florida filed public records requests with the Lakeland Police Department and the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) Friday morning because they want to know how exactly the camera system is being used.

According to the LDDA, how the system works is they have to upload a photo of a "person of interest" to the camera software, so that person can be detected by one of their 14 cameras. The system sends an email alert to their "Clean and Safe Manager," who can then contact the police if need be.

BACKSTORY: 'They need to shut it down now': Concerns raised over downtown Lakeland's facial recognition cameras

A "person of interest" is defined, for example, as somebody who has trespassed from multiple businesses or who has engaged in crime.

"This is virtually unprecedented for an American city to do," said Nate Freed Wessler, deputy director with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Freed says there are still many unanswered questions about the surveillance program and wants to make sure the system isn't totally unchecked or unsupervised.

"We don't know how accurate the system is or how often does it misidentify people and sends police chasing after somebody and chase people they didn't mean to put in," said Wessler.

The owner of Lloyd's of Lakeland Antiques tells FOX 13 he's wary of the system.

"I'm not really thrilled with it. I've seen what's going on in China for the last 20 years and it's just worse and worse. It's a slippery slope and it just starts the wrong thing," said Stephen Debats.

The LDDA's Executive Director, Julie Townsend, said on Friday they've been nothing but transparent about the technology.

A statement they posted on their website reads in part:

"...Downtown businesses and property owners spend tens of thousands of dollars every year repairing vandalism and graffiti and are victims of other crimes. There is no reason that we should ignore technology already used practically everywhere you go in public to further enhance our ability to deter bad behavior and to aid police in identifying those who committed crimes in Downtown...."

So far the program is tracking three "people of interest."

The agencies have several days to respond to the records requests.

For more information on the facial recognition system, click here.

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