If you’ve recently signed up for unemployment benefits or renewed your driver’s license in Montana, your face will be logged into a facial recognition database and could be scanned countless times by government officials hoping to match you with a criminal suspect.
Getting cataloged and searched in government databases may sound dystopian, but it’s a reality in Montana today. Face recognition is increasingly being used as a tool to make government more efficient – to aid law enforcement investigations and uncover identity fraud. But without proper public knowledge and oversight, this powerful technology can be misused and threaten the privacy and safety of law-abiding Montans.
When the Montana Unemployment Insurance Department rolled out its facial recognition program in late 2020, identity theft cases dropped from 3,200 to single-digit numbers in just a few months. Simply asking applicants to upload a “selfie” that will be verified with facial recognition before receiving benefits was a huge asset for taxpayers, protecting against fraudulent payments and saving numerous man hours.
But here’s the catch: the facial recognition provider used by the unemployment department shares users’ biometric information in response to government inquiries. Nothing seems to stop the FBI or any other law enforcement agency from requesting a scan of every Montanan who has applied for unemployment benefits, whether or not they are individually suspected of a crime. To make matters worse, the provider stores users’ selfies in their private database for up to seven years, long after a person may have applied for the program.
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Montana’s Department of Motor Vehicles similarly uses a facial recognition system to detect identity fraud. But after your driver’s license is enrolled in their system, your face is automatically shared with a national law enforcement data clearing house. This clearinghouse is rapidly developing capabilities to enable law enforcement agencies across the country to run a facial recognition scan of the entire driver’s license database to look for a match with a criminal suspect.
If officials were to go door-to-door to scan the face of every citizen while investigating a crime, the Montans would be rightly outraged by such intrusive government actions. But that’s exactly what happens when law enforcement agencies use facial recognition searches to scan everyone in civilian databases. Worse still, Montans in these databases would have no idea they were undergoing a facial recognition search.
Mass searches by law enforcement are a threat to our freedoms, and new facial recognition features make it easier than ever. Florida police have used facial recognition surveillance to identify and catalog peaceful protesters, potentially leading people to think twice before exercising their right to freedom of expression again. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the technology could be used to create databases of gun rights activists, parental rights activists, or election supporters.
While some law enforcement agencies have put internal restrictions on mass searches in place, Montana officials willingly admit that it’s basically the Wild West when it comes to using facial recognition.
Since the faces of more montaners are being recorded in state face recognition systems, legislators must examine how we can better protect our privacy. Legislators should consider establishing a transparent, unified standard for how law enforcement agencies can use facial recognition in Montana. This standard should require that criminal face recognition searches meet constitutional standards of special suspicion. The standard is also intended to protect law-abiding Montaner in government databases from criminal mass searches.
Montana is often a leader in privacy efforts, and now lawmakers have the ability to stay ahead of the curve with facial recognition before it’s too late.
Kendall Cotton is President and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a Helena’s think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montans can thrive.