Is Police Using Face Recognition Technology an Invasion of Privacy?


Congress wrestles how police can regulate the use of facial recognition technology as software to search databases or find people in crowds, an increasingly common feature of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the burgeoning technology raises serious concerns about freedom of expression, due process, and search and seizure.

A former Utah US attorney told a Congressional subcommittee on Tuesday that there was a lack of transparency, accountability and basic information about police use of the technology, apart from “vague assurances” that people should trust the government Safe to use technology.

“Many of the fundamental questions you probably want – and deserve – answers to are currently unanswerable. Questions like: How many law enforcement agencies are using facial recognition? How often do you use it? Who is in their databases and why? ”Brett Tolman told the House of Representatives Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee.

A video surveillance camera is installed on the ceiling above a subway platform in Court Street Station in the New York borough of Brooklyn on October 7, 2020.
Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

Tolman, executive director of the conservative organization Right on Crime, called what is known about the use of the technology “intimidating”.

A recent government accountability report found that the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Internal Revenue Service are among the 20 federal agencies using the software, along with the FBI. The US state facial recognition technology market is estimated at $ 136.9 million in 2018, with the expectation that it will nearly triple by 2025, he said.

Another estimate found that as of 2016, at least one in four police departments had the ability to conduct facial recognition searches, a number that Tolman says has certainly increased since then.

Utah legislature passed bill earlier this year that would require government agencies that use a person’s photo in conjunction with facial recognition technology to inform that person about how it might be used.

The law requires the police to submit a written request for a face-to-face match that includes a statement about the specific crime being investigated. Government officials may only respond to requests for investigations into criminal offenses, violent crimes, or threats to human life, or to identify a dead, incapacitated, or endangered person.

Automotive departments in at least 20 states have given the FBI driver license information, said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the senior member of the House Judiciary Committee

“No American citizen has given permission for his or her data and images to be passed on to the FBI. No elected official has ever voted to allow this, ”he said.

In addition to the images secured by the criminal justice system, the government is collecting millions of driver’s license and passport photos, Tolman said. Private tech companies that sign contracts with the police force have collected billions of photos posted on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and even Venmo.

“This collection is an unprecedented invasion of privacy that puts tremendous, inadequate control in the hands of government and big tech, two companies not always known for their lightness or responsible use of power,” he said.

The topic hit the headlines in 2019 when national and local news outlets reported on the longstanding practice of making a database of driver’s license photos of Utah, including those of minors, available without warrant for state and local law enforcement to conduct trawl-style searches using advanced facial recognition software .

“There’s a tension we need to address,” said House Justice Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, DN.Y ..

“On the one hand, this technology is an integral part of our lives today,” he said. “On the other hand, most Americans have little understanding of how police use facial recognition technology to monitor communities across the country, for better or for worse.”

There have been several “disturbing” reports of police misusing technology in trying to bring women and people of color together, he said. The adoption of the program should not further undermine trust between citizens and the police or disproportionately affect people of color, said Nadler.

Tolman said walking out the door in the morning to jump from camera to camera, from the supermarket on the corner to the traffic camera in front of it, can be an exercise. In addition to “perpetual passive” surveillance, the police may be able to add recordings from body-worn cameras or from a smartphone in an officer’s pocket.

“In short, there are very few cases where law enforcement will not do this have the opportunity to expose a person of interest to facial recognition technology, ”he said.

Despite his reservations about the practice, Tolman didn’t say law enforcement should never have access to the technology. He said it was unrealistic to expect the police to refuse to use a tool that is increasingly common in the commercial sector and has a strong public safety enhancement capacity.

“However, recognizing that there are credible uses for facial recognition technology and expressing support for law enforcement is not the same as writing a blank check for power and then looking the other way,” he said.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, a member of the committee, said society cannot rely on technology to deal with rising crime. He said it was a tool to support human relationships.

“We cannot continue to humiliate and disregard the good men and women who oversee our communities and expect technology to make up for this,” he said.


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