Facial Recognition: Not Just for Cops Anymore
October 26, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Various reports released this month say that over half of Americans have their image stored in law enforcement facial recognition databases. Back in June, Fault Lines contributor Mario Machado reported that the FBI was going to great pains to keep things private about their own database, claiming the right to immunity from lawsuits by people trying to find out if they’re in it. In a separate statement the FBI claimed it:
[H]as made privacy and civil liberties integral to every decision since the inception of its use of facial recognition technology, establishing practices that protect privacy and civil liberties beyond the requirements of the law.
We check the law very carefully in order to find ways to circumvent privacy and civil liberties and if a law stands in our way we will find a way to make ourselves exempt from it.
Now it seems that these databases are popping up in law enforcement agencies all over the country and local police don’t want to tell you who’s in theirs either..
A report by Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology Called “The Perpetual Line Up” says that at least 52 police agencies across the country now employ this technology. Those departments responded to inquiries sent out to 100 law enforcement agencies; there may be more. Some, like the Los Angeles Police Department, even have the technology to identify people on video surveillance in real-time.
If you have committed a crime at some point you might expect to be in a criminal database. They might also have your fingerprints and DNA. Certainly it would seem a huge invasion of privacy for the police to have your fingerprints and DNA if you had never committed a crime or even been suspected of lawbreaking. Now simply by standing for your driver’s license photo, you can become the subject of a completely warrantless search without even knowing about it.
Thus far deployment of this technology is completely unregulated. It first saw action in Iraq, Israel and Afghanistan to seek out “insurgents.” Now it is being used on Americans with no oversight. further blurring the line between the military and local police departments.
Many people are aware that police departments have been using license plate scanners. Police cars are equipped with a scanner connected to their database and as they pass vehicles on the street they scan every car within range. The purpose of this is to catch car thieves, child abductors, people who didn’t register their cars and more.
Imagine a police car scanning every single face it passes and searching a criminal database. Imagine cops equipped with this technology on their phones, then going to a peaceful protest and scanning everyone there. Combined, the two databases are a dangerous weapon against Americans if abused. What’s to stop cops from taking pictures of people peacefully protesting, then using the license database to look for their cars and subject them to harassment such as bogus traffic tickets, unwarranted field sobriety checks or worse?
There seems to be no concrete numbers on accuracy of facial recognition technology. Items like sunglasses, prescription eyewear, make-up and even removable piercings can blunt the accuracy of the recognition algorithm; as can young people since their faces are still going through rapid changes. However, with technology improving and computer techs looking to improve methods such as procedural modeling for computer vision applications, the same could also be applied to facial recognition, whether it’s in real-time or otherwise. People of color and people from poor communities who are the focus of much more police attention are likely to be over-represented here too, further skewing accuracy.
Police say they would never misuse this technology and we should believe them because they would never do anything like that, right?
Wrong. Cops abuse the technology already in existence at an alarming rate. To target romantic interests, business rivals, journalists, neighbors, or simply out of curiosity. Giving them even more tools for abuse is going to erode the already vanishing level of trust Americans have for law enforcement.
But all is not sourness and dark.
Technology can cut both ways. The folks who create this technology for military use are not the only ones working on it. Take for example the image search app called TinEye. It has a growing database of more than 16 billion images. All you have to do is upload an image to their site, or if you have the app installed on your computer you simply right click and choose the search button. Google has an image search as well.
Some apps used by law enforcement are also in public hands. This will also enable activists to create their own databases and track problem law enforcement officers and the new employment status and whereabouts of Gypsy cops. It could also help identify cops who act as Agents Provocateur to disrupt lawful first amendment activities or spy on activists. Imagine aiming your phone at some guy who just smashed a store window during an otherwise peaceful march and having him or her pop-up on your screen as a member of law enforcement.
This technology will get better over time and cops are going to find their pictures popping up all over too. If the police in this country want to use this technology to exert control, then they might want to think about the nightmare of having it used on them. This sword swings both ways.