Facial Recognition Nets ELPD Arrest in Couch Burning

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It was a celebration that was well-documented on Twitter and Facebook. Students used social media sites to post photos and videos of Spartan fans burning couches, tearing down street signs and uprooting trees.

Now, police are examining those same posts with the hope of criminally charging those involved.

"What we're trying to spend most of our time and resources on is identifying people that were doing more serious crimes," said East Lansing Police Capt. Jeff Murphy. "We take a picture of an unknown person, give it to the state police, they run it through the database and try to match it with a known photo."

Michigan State Police are lending their services through their SNAP program, which utilizes face-recognition technology. Computers examine the distance between facial features in photographs and then use algorithms to compare them to mug shots, said Pete Langenfeld, SNAP program manager.

It's a technology that's been in use since 2003, mostly for retail frauds and bank robberies, Langenfeld said. But this is among the first times ELPD has used it for an investigation, according to Murphy.

So far, the technology has helped identify one person, but police hope it can further add to the 17 already charged with various crimes.

"It's much the same as police have done with fingerprints. We take an unknown print and match it to a known print. It just uses a lot more high-tech technology to do it."

There are challenges to using the technology though. For one, many of the photos are of lower quality. The setting at Cedar Village the morning of the incidents -- poor lighting, a fast-moving scene and almost exclusive use of camera phones -- make it tough to get a good shot, Langenfeld said. Many of the ELPD's photos are just still frames from video.

And what's more, the database the facial-recognition technology only scans a database of arrest mug shots. Many of the students don't have a criminal record.

That's why ELPD is posting many of its photos to its Facebook page, with hope that someone from the school or the community will identify it. And Capt. Murphy hopes it will lend a warning to people who see it.

"I think it would be positive if people saw that maybe, 'if I'm there, somebody's going to take my picture and that will lead to some sort of trouble for me,'" he said.

As for the legality of using social media posts, Cooley Law Professor Ron Bretz says it can be a tricky area, but the courts have made a few things clear.

"The court has said anything you communicate to any member of the public is no longer private," he said. "If [the police] are hacking in there, then that's a problem, but a lot of the stuff is very public. And like I said, if a police officer has a Facebook friend who says hey, here's a picture my friend sent me, then it's out in public now."

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