German Traffic Cops Use Facebook Profile Photos to Identify Speeders

There has been a lot of discussion around Facebook’s face recognition-based photo tagging feature lately, but putting your picture up on Facebook can have other unintended consequences as well. In two German states (Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia), police agents now regularly use Facebook to ensure that they’re sending traffic tickets that were generated by automated speed enforcement cameras to the right people.

Speeders and tailgaters who get caught by these systems often argue that they weren’t actually behind the wheel at the time the picture was taken. In Germany, it’s not the car’s owner who is responsible for these tickets but whoever was driving the car. When somebody challenges one of these tickets, there is typically some costly detective work involved, including questioning neighbors or getting access to the driver’s passport pictures on file at the local town hall. Facebook makes this a lot easier for local law enforcement: just type in the suspect’s name and there’s the picture you were looking for.

Can’t Argue Against Your Own Facebook Picture

english driver with muppet in passenger seat caught on german traffic camIn a recent case in Hamburg, local law enforcement ticketed a driver who was following too closely and got caught by a mobile camera on a highway overpass. The driver argued that he wasn’t driving and refused to pay the roughly $600 fine (traffic tickets are rather costly in Germany). A Facebook search however revealed that he was indeed driving the car and his lawyers quickly withdrew their petition.

Given that Facebook’s profile images are publicly available on the Web, police and other law enforcement agencies are free to use them as they please.

For now, none of these systems used in Germany are automated. It’s hard not to wonder, though, if coupling these freely available pictures with the right algorithm couldn’t soon allow law enforcement to automate this process and use it for other tasks as well.