Five Questions about DART's Facial Recognition Plan

Late last week, DART provoked a bit of an uproar when the transit agency's police chief told The Dallas Morning News' Brandon Formby that the long awaited security cameras finally being stalled on DART's light rail trains would be equipped with facial recognition software. DART is a lot of things, but it isn't the National Security Agency, so the revelation that the transit agency might know just how often you go to the Angelika by yourself was understandably disconcerting. Of course, the Observer has questions too.

1. Why? — Cameras on trains make sense. As there's been an increase in focus on public safety downtown, many DART users have complained on social media that they feel unsafe on trains. DART officials have cited the crime at the West End station as part of the motivation to get cameras on trains. In the last year, there's been a shooting on a train, and multiple assaults have occurred at DART stations, including a stabbing at Pearl Station in January 2015 and an alleged rape in September. Having recordings of those incidents, or being able to see who was on trains entering and leaving those stations near the time of the attacks, would've been a good thing. That doesn't have anything to do with facial recognition, though.

So what's DART getting at? The agency says the facial recognition software will be used to run faces against a database built by the agency. The majority of faces in the database will be fare scofflaws. Those who repeatedly get caught riding the train without a ticket are subject to being banned by the agency. Facial recognition would allow DART cops to be alerted whenever a banned individual was riding the train.

DART also says that the software will be used when law enforcement is looking for people in DART's service area. Police issue Be On the Lookout notices (BOLOs, in law enforcement shorthand) that DART will install in databases, and later remove. That leads to our next question.
2. How much do you trust DART? DART says it will purge video and remove people from their database when their reason to be sought has ended. Of course, it's easy to imagine that the software will include larger databases, like state and federal wanted lists. Those who fear a steady creep of surveillance will undoubtedly see yet another place where a camera can spot someone with a warrant or wanted for questioning.
3. How much is it going to cost? — DART's experiment will equip 48 of its 163 train cars before the end of this year, at a cost of $4.8 million. The agency expects all of its train cars to be equipped with cameras. DART officials tell the Observer that cameras will also sprout at stations and parking lots, in time.

4. What do riders get out of it? — This might be the biggest question. How does placing cameras potentially armed with facial recognition software on DART's trains benefit DART's riders?

First, the agency says the cameras will potentially provide for the monitoring of trains for overcrowding and allow DART to dispatch additional resources on high ridership days like Texas/OU Saturday. Officials say that some crowded lines could even get extra trains. 

But it's not possible to push additional cars or trains through the downtown grid during rush hour and everyone knows that riding DART during Texas/OU — or the rest of the fair for that matter — is often a terrible experience.

Beijing's subway system is using facial recognition to streamline an often chaotic boarding process, but DART is not going there yet. Still, the potential that something could be done about DART's ticketing system is promising. With open stations and infrequent fare checks, riders often feel like suckers when they actually do pay. 5. Will it ever actually happen? — It should be noted that DART's facial recognition plans are no sure thing. The agency still has to get all the details worked out with its vendor, maintain the onboard equipment and establish protocols for the software, keeping in mind all of the concerns already mentioned. The DART Board of Directors has not even approved the plan. DART was clearly not ready to roll this news out next week, but DART Police Chief James Spiller kind of slipped into it when talking about security cameras on trains.

This is an agency that's never managed to get Wi-Fi on its vehicles and still hasn't gotten around to installing cellular service in the underground Cityplace Station, after that station's been around for more than a decade.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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