Report Documents The Problems And Privacy Risks With Unregulated Facial Recognition Databases By Law Enforcement
According to a report by the Center on Privacy and Technology (CPT) at Georgetown Law school, about 48 percent of adult Americans -- 117 million people-- are already profiled in facial-recognition databases by law enforcement. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains a facial-recognition database, but local police departments do, too.
Issues raised by findings in the report:
"Across the country, state and local police departments are building their own face recognition systems, many of them more advanced than the FBI’s. We know very little about these systems. We don’t know how they impact privacy and civil liberties. We don’t know how they address accuracy problems. And we don’t know how any of these systems—local, state, or federal—affect racial and ethnic minorities."
Facial recognition software is not new, and the report acknowledges that its use is inevitable by law enforcement. The facts include:
"FBI face recognition searches are more common than federal court-ordered wiretaps. 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 (and potentially as many as 30) allow law enforcement to run or request searches against their databases of driver’s license and ID photos. Roughly one in two American adults has their photos searched this way... Historically, FBI fingerprint and DNA databases have been primarily or exclusively made up of information from criminal arrests or investigations. By running face recognition searches against 16 states’ driver’s license photo databases, the FBI has built a biometric network that primarily includes law-abiding Americans. This is unprecedented and highly problematic..."
The report does not want to stop facial-recognition software usage, and it acknowledges that most law enforcement personnel do not want to invade citizens' privacy. The report' raises concerns based upon the data collection primarily includes law-abiding citizens and not just criminals; plus the lack of transparency and regulation regarding accuracy, training, and deployment. Some of the uses that raise concerns:
"Real-time face recognition lets police continuously scan the faces of pedestrians walking by a street surveillance camera... 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... 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. While some agencies, like the San Diego Association of Governments, limit themselves to more targeted use of the technology, others are embracing high and very high risk deployments."
The report described specific examples of usage at the state and local levels:
"No state has passed a law comprehensively regulating police face recognition. We are not aware of any agency that requires warrants for searches or limits them to serious crimes. This has consequences. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office enrolled all of Honduras’ driver’s licenses and mug shots into its database. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office system runs 8,000 monthly searches on the faces of seven million Florida drivers—without requiring that officers have even a reasonable suspicion before running a search..."
A major concern the report discussed is the:
"... real risk that police face recognition will be used to stifle free speech. There is also a history of FBI and police surveillance of civil rights protests. Of the 52 agencies that we found to use (or have used) face recognition, we found only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, whose face recognition use policy expressly prohibits its officers from using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech."
Another major concern the report discussed:
"Face recognition is less accurate than fingerprinting, particularly when used in real-time or on large databases. Yet we found only two agencies, the San Francisco Police Department and the Seattle region’s South Sound 911, that conditioned purchase of the technology on accuracy tests or thresholds. There is a need for testing. One major face recognition company, FaceFirst, publicly advertises a 95% accuracy rate but disclaims liability for failing to meet that threshold in contracts with the San Diego Association of Governments... Companies and police departments largely rely on police officers to decide whether a candidate photo is in fact a match. Yet a recent study showed that, without specialized training, human users make the wrong decision about a match half the time... an FBI co-authored study suggests that face recognition may be less accurate on black people..."
Regarding the lack of transparency by law enforcement:
"Ohio’s face recognition system remained almost entirely unknown to the public for five years. The New York Police Department acknowledges using face recognition; press reports suggest it has an advanced system. Yet NYPD denied our records request entirely. The Los Angeles Police Department has repeatedly announced new face recognition initiatives—including a “smart car” equipped with face recognition and real-time face recognition cameras—yet the agency claimed to have “no records responsive” to our document request. Of 52 agencies, only four (less than 10%) have a publicly available use policy. And only one agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, received legislative approval for its policy... Maryland’s system, which includes the license photos of over two million residents, was launched in 2011. It has never been audited. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office system is almost 15 years old and may be the most frequently used system in the country. When asked if his office audits searches for misuse, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri replied, “No, not really.” Despite assurances to Congress, the FBI has not audited use of its face recognition system, either..."
Learn more about the expanded facial-recognition system the FBI deployed in 2014. The New York Times reported last year about some of the problems:
"Facial recognition software, which American military and intelligence agencies used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify potential terrorists, is being eagerly adopted by dozens of police departments around the country to pursue drug dealers, prostitutes and other conventional criminal suspects. But because it is being used with few guidelines and with little oversight or public disclosure... Law enforcement officers say the technology is much faster than fingerprinting at identifying suspects, although it is unclear how much it is helping the police make arrests... "
The CPT report proposed the following solutions to address privacy concerns:
- Use mug-shot databases (and not driver’s license databases and ID photos) as the default for facial recognition searches. Periodically purge them of innocent persons,
- Searches of driver's license databases and ID photos should require a court order showing probable cause, except in instances of identity theft and fraud,
- Notify the public if the policy includes searches of databases maintained by motor-vehicle agencies,
- Local communities should decide real-time facial recognition surveillance is used in public places of the public and/or with police-worn body cameras. Real-time facial recognition surveilance should be a last resort used only in life-threatening emergencies supported by probable cause with limits as to scope and duration.
The year-long investigation by the CPT included more than 100 records requests to police departments around the country. Read the full report: "The Perpetual Line-up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America."
We know the National Security Agency (NSA) uses facial recognition software. Some agencies probably acquire photos and related information from them, too. If so, this should be disclosed. In 2012, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed guidelines for facial-recognition by social networking sites, companies, and retail stores. Since governments are supposed to report to and serve citizens, similar guidelines should apply to law enforcement.
What are your opinions of real-time facial recognition surveillance? Of the issues raised by the CDT report?