Unregulated use of facial recognition tech threatens people’s privacy, civil rights

Facial recognition tech is a boon to law enforcement, but without strict regulation and safeguards, it poses considerable risks to the privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights of law abiding citizens. Unfortunately, that’s the current situation in the US.

facial recognition tech

Released on Tuesday, an extensive and in-depth report by the Center for Privacy & Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center has revealed just how extensively the technology is used by law enforcement agencies.

And even though the academics received limited information after filing official requests to police departments around the country, that information combined with the available FBI data paints a worrying picture:

  • Half of all American adults – that’s 117 million individuals – is in a law enforcement face recognition network. Some are in a driver’s license, some in mug shot, and some in other databases.
  • At least one out of four state or local police departments has the option to run face recognition searches through their or another agency’s system.
  • At least 26 states allow law enforcement to run or request searches against their databases of driver’s license and ID photos.
  • The use of face recognition by law enforcement is unregulated, and auditing of these systems for misuse is rare. (“Only nine of 52 agencies (17%) indicated that they log and audit their officers’ face recognition searches for improper use.”)
  • Most agencies do little to ensure that the systems they use are accurate. Also, according to a recent study, human users are ill-equipped to make decisions about the accuracy of the match, but few systems also come with specialized personnel that has been trained to narrow down potential matches.
  • There is no independent testing regime for racially biased error rates in those systems.

The academics are also worried that law enforcement agencies are keeping information about the use of this technology secret, and that it could be misused to stifle free speech (e.g. when surveilling civil rights protests) as there are no policies to forbid such use.

“Contract documents and agency statements show that at least five major police departments—including agencies in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles—either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology that can do so, or expressed a written interest in buying it. Nearly all major face recognition companies offer real-time software,” they noted.

“A face recognition search conducted in the field to verify the identity of someone who has been legally stopped or arrested is different, in principle and effect, than an investigatory search of an ATM photo against a driver’s license database, or continuous, real-time scans of people walking by a surveillance camera. The former is targeted and public. The latter are generalized and invisible.”

The report concludes with recommendations that should legally curtail (but not wholly forbid) the use of facial recognition technology in specific instances, and to improve checks to make sure of the systems’ accuracy and objectivity.

They ask the US Congress and state legislatures to pass laws to regulate law enforcement face recognition, the FBI and the DOJ to limit law enforcement use of the tech, police departments to refrain from using it indiscriminately and be open to the public about its use, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to up amplify accuracy tests, face recognition companies to test for racial bias, and communities to react (with lawsuits if need be) if they feel law enforcement agencies are misusing the tech to infringe on their privacy and civil rights.

“As face recognition advances, it creates profound questions about the future of our society,” the academics concluded. “In a rapidly evolving world, technology often outpaces privacy law. It is time for privacy law to catch up. Achieving this will require the action of all stakeholders.”

As a reaction to the report, a coalition of civil liberties organizations asked the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to review the impact of facial recognition as used by police departments and the FBI, and to investigate police practices regarding the technology.

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