Facial recognition tech leads feds to fugitive after 14 years

A cold case comes back to life after facial recognition software recognizes an alleged US outlaw who'd been hiding out in Nepal.

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Facial recognition technology used on the photo in the Neil Stammer wanted poster led to his arrest. FBI

In 2000, after being accused of child sex abuse and kidnapping in New Mexico, Neil Stammer skipped town and went underground. Fourteen years later he was arrested in Nepal.

How did the authorities catch this fugitive? Facial recognition technology.

Stammer was first arrested in 1999 on multiple state charges, but after being released on bond, he never showed up for his arraignment. He was said to be a talented juggler who spoke a dozen languages and traveled the world as a street performer.

The FBI thought he could be anywhere. After years of trying to locate Stammer, with no luck, the feds decided to shelve the case.

Then, earlier this year, FBI Special Agent Russ Wilson was assigned to be a fugitive coordinator in New Mexico.

"In addition to the current fugitives, I had a stack of old cases," Wilson said in a statement, "and Stammer's stood out."

So, Wilson reissued Stammer's "Wanted" poster. At the same time, the Diplomatic Security Service, which cracks down on bogus US passports, had just begun testing facial recognition software designed to expose passport fraud.

An agent from the Diplomatic Security Service ran the software on Stammer's poster and came up with something interesting -- a match with a passport photo of someone named Kevin Hodges. The agent contacted Wilson who quickly tracked down Stammer in Nepal. Stammer had been living under the alias of Kevin Hodges and was teaching English to Nepalese students.

"He was very comfortable in Nepal," Wilson said. "My impression was that he never thought he would be discovered."

Although facial recognition technology has attracted growing attention in recent years from law enforcement and commercial interests, its reception has been rocky. Privacy advocates raised concerns in April over a facial-recognition database being developed by the FBI that could hold 52 million images by next year. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has also questioned the FBI's use of facial recognition software, saying it could infringe on people's privacy.

According to a report from July 2011, it's not just the FBI employing facial recognition software -- around 40 law enforcement agencies across the US are attempting to use mobile facial recognition technology to identify individuals.

 

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