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Facial Recognition & Law Enforcement: Do You Have That Guilty Look?


In the days of the mythic Wild West, the “Wanted!” poster was a staple of tales in which lawmen hunted outlaws. Desperados took many names, but it was their face which bank clerks and saloon owners recognized. Today the wanted poster is rapidly becoming obsolete with the rise of facial recognition technology, but with these systems comes a new sort of untamed frontier.

As powerful systems spot and match faces in the crowd to databases of criminals and suspects, who’s watching the law watch the public? Is our biometric data being stored without our consent? How accurate are they systems? How concerned should we be about our privacy in the face of this new security measure?

Part of what makes facial recognition technology so powerful is its ability to massively and passively conduct surveillance without our knowledge. (For a primer, check out the August 2017 article, “What’s in a Face?”) Advances in cameras and broadband mobile networks have made facial recognition tech potentially ubiquitous. What’s more, some tech companies are eager to push the envelope of these technologies.

A Portrait of Big Tech & Law Enforcement

Amazon, for instance, is the force behind “Rekognition,” a product it sells to law enforcement agencies which is part of its machine learning suite on Amazon Web Services. Not even Amazon’s employees are completely comfortable with the company’s stance on facial recognition technology. On October 16th, an Amazon employee shared an anonymous op-ed with Medium voicing concerns within the company about the high potential for abuse of Rekognition by authorities. According to the employee:

“Law enforcement has already started using facial recognition with virtually no public oversight or debate or restrictions on use from Amazon. Orlando, Florida, is testing Rekognition with live video feeds from surveillance cameras around the city. A sheriff’s department in Oregon is currently using Rekognition to let officers in the field compare photos to a database of mugshots. This is not a hypothetical situation.”

Law enforcement agencies are quick to tout the benefits of facial recognition technology while downplaying fears about abuse. As the South Wales Police say in this video segment for Financial Times:

“People don’t understand it and want to be reassured that we’re not using it in some way which could undermine their privacy or could undermine their rights to freedom around South Wales or the country. If you’re not on the watch list – and that watch list consists of people who have committed criminal offences and are wanted by us, the great majority, 99.9 per cent of people are not on that watch list – we don’t even know if you’ve walked past it.”

These sorts of reassurances will not go the distance when it comes to soothing the public’s privacy concerns. As a recent Brookings Institution survey found, people are highly resistant to the idea of facial recognition technology. Among their findings:

“Fifty percent are unfavorable to the use of facial recognition software in retail stores to prevent theft, according to a survey undertaken by researchers at the Brookings Institution. Forty-four percent are unfavorable to using this software in airports to establish identity, 44 percent are unfavorable to it in stadiums as a way to protect people, and 38 percent are unfavorable to its use in schools to protect students.”

In terms of law enforcement limitations:

“Fifty percent believe there should be limits on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement, 26 percent do not, and 24 percent are unsure.”

Facing the Privacy Paradox

Yet there is something of the privacy paradox at work when it comes to facial recognition technology. While people report a high degree of ambivalence about facial recognition systems in public places, they seem to be willing to use it as a password replacement for their phone.

Apple’s newest line of iPhones prominently feature Face ID, a means of doing away with traditional passwords through a combination of the phone’s camera, software, and facial biometric data. Even this technology is subject to law enforcement usage, though. In fact, The Atlantic reports that for the first time “police have compelled a suspect to unlock his phone using Face ID.”

There are tangible benefits to facial recognition. Certainly, we will see cases in the future where criminals have been caught, theft deterred, and public places made more secure. Given that the technology is here and unlikely to disappear, we need to have discussions with stakeholders in all sectors—community, government, and private industry—as to how to best mitigate abuses while protecting privacy.

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