Privacy and security online are big concerns in this day and age of always-on connectivity, but they become even bigger concerns when law enforcement, facial recognition technology and the US government all get thrown into the mix.
According to an exhaustive report from the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, US law enforcement agencies have a facial recognition database, which contains images and data on half of the over-18 population of the country. The researchers say the law enforcement agencies have data and images on file of 117 million Americans, as well as countless foreigners as well, most of which have never committed a crime.
To make matters a whole lot worse, the report goes on to say that there’s virtually no oversight on how the database is queried, who does the searches and for what reason. Out of 52 law enforcement agencies that admitted to using facial recognition software, only one said it prohibited its agents from looking up citizens “engaging in political, religious or other protected free speech”. Claire Garvie, the lead author on the report, said:
With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It's a Wild West.
The images used by the police, the FBI and other enforcement agencies seem to mainly come from driver’s licenses and ID photos. But a whole lot more information may be going into the database in the near future, as more and more cities are installing CCTV cameras. And if you think that’s only there to help crime solvers afterwards, you’re very wrong. The researchers uncovered documentation from at least five “major police departments”, including Chicago, Dallas and LA, that “claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology that can do so, or expressed an interest in buying it”.
Civil liberties and human rights groups have sent a letter to the Justice Department after the Georgetown report became public, asking the government to investigate how facial recognition software is being used, and raising concerns about the right to privacy and First Amendment considerations.