Initial reports suggested that the suspect had somehow obscured his fingerprints, preventing law enforcement from using them to identify him. That’s harder than it sounds. Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler, told CBSN anchor Anne-Marie Green that “a fingerprint examiner would still be able to get his prints from their side, the palm, and so forth.” In a press conference on Friday, Anne Arundel County police chief Timothy Altomare said that the fingerprint-identification process was simply proceeding very slowly, and for that reason authorities made use of facial-recognition instead.
Those systems have been around for a while, too. Since 2011, law enforcement has had access to smartphone-driven devices that can perform fingerprint, iris-scan, and facial identification. States have begun storing ID-card photos, and the FBI collects and aggregates those databases via partnerships with state DMVs (it does the same with civil and criminal fingerprints). As the deadline nears for the REAL ID act, which sets standards for compliant identification, more states have started storing pictures of citizen’s faces. The databases have also been used to prevent fraud, including identity theft and falsified official documents.
Altomare explained that his office used the Maryland Coordination and Analysis System, or MCAC, to identify the suspect. When searches of this kind come up, they dredge up questions about privacy and due process. Altomare admitted that the system “has come under some fire from civil libertarians,” but added that “it would have taken much longer” to identify the suspect without that system.
Now that technology makes so much information available so rapidly, the public sometimes expects law enforcement to have acted on perfect information, especially when it comes to social media in particular. On Friday morning, a CBSN reporter asked Altomare, “Shouldn’t Ramos’s social-media posts have been on the police’s radar?” According to police, Ramos had indeed made some threats “indicating violence” on social media. Altomare later acknowledged that the suspect “had a history [of threats] on the social-media platforms,” but added, “We were not aware of that history until last night. Should we have been? Sure, in a perfect world we should have been.”
Altomare added that law enforcement might have been able to do more if they’d still had access to Geofeedia, a location-based analytics company that provides analysis of social-media posts within a geographic area in real-time. Sometimes nicknamed “TweetDeck for Cops,” the service has been controversial: In 2016, the ACLU worried that the tool was being marketed to law enforcement as a way to monitor protestors. In 2017, popular social-media services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter stopped sending their data to Geofeedia, effectively cutting off law-enforcement from this kind of monitoring.