Half of All American Adults are in a Police Facial Recognition Database

Thursday, October 20, 2016
(graphic: Stegerphoto/Getty Images)


By Daniel Victor, New York Times


A new report (pdf) by a think tank at Georgetown University calls for greater oversight for emerging facial-recognition software that makes the images of more than 117 million Americans — a disproportionate number of whom are black — searchable by law enforcement agencies across the nation.


While the agencies, including the FBI, have historically created fingerprint and DNA databases primarily from criminal investigations, many of the photos scattered among agencies at all levels of government are of law-abiding Americans, according to the report released Tuesday.


The report found that 16 states allow law enforcement officials to compare the faces of people suspected of criminal acts to photos on driver’s licenses and other forms of identification without a warrant, “creating a virtual lineup of their state residents,” the report said.


“This is unprecedented and highly problematic,” said the report, by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown’s law school.


Facial recognition technology, long used overseas by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is seen by local law enforcement as an invaluable tool for identifying criminals, but it has also raised concerns among privacy advocates.


Because African-Americans are disproportionately more likely to come into contact with, and be arrested by, law enforcement officials, the report said, their police photos will most likely be overrepresented in facial recognition databases.


The authors of the report said the aim was not to stop the use of the software, which they acknowledged had been effective in investigations. Nor did they fault law enforcement officers, who they said “are simply using every tool available to protect the people that they are sworn to serve.”


Rather, they called for Congress and state legislatures to pass laws creating stricter regulations on the technology. Researchers found, for instance, that just one agency — the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation — specifically prohibited using the software to track people engaging in political or religious speech. No state has a law regulating use of the software.


“There is a real risk that police face recognition will be used to stifle free speech,” the report said.


In a statement, the FBI said it “has 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.”


When the algorithms identify a candidate based on matching facial patterns, the results must go through two layers of human review before the person is suggested to an investigator, according to the statement. It is considered a lead, not a positive identification, the FBI said.


“It is crucial that members of the law enforcement community have access to advanced biometric technologies to accurately investigate, identify, apprehend, and prosecute terrorists and criminals,” the statement said.


The report found that systems relying on police photos have a greater effect on African-Americans since they are arrested at higher rates. But the software may be less accurate with pictures of black people, and there is no independent testing for errors, it said.


Among the steps the authors suggested taking:


— Databases should rely on police photos, not driver’s licenses and photo IDs.


— Law enforcement should occasionally eliminate innocent people from any search.


— Searches of driver’s license and identification photos should require a court order and be limited to serious crimes, with the exception of identity theft and fraud cases.


— An explicit ban should be enacted against tracking people on the basis of political or religious beliefs, race or ethnicity.


The report raised concerns about the increasing use of facial-recognition software on live video, allowing the police to constantly scan faces on surveillance cameras. Several large police departments have looked into or have begun using the technology, the report said.


“If deployed pervasively on surveillance video or police-worn body cameras, real-time face recognition will redefine the nature of public spaces,” the report warned.


To Learn More:

The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America (Georgetown Law – Center on Privacy and Technology, Georgetown University) (pdf)

Privacy Concerns over FBI Desire to Access Massive Ohio Facial-Recognition Database (by Marcie Shields, Courthouse News Service)

Privacy Groups Withdraw from Commerce Dept. Facial Recognition Meetings (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI’s Facial Recognition Program Goes Operational (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Facial Recognition Software Creeps Closer to Total Accuracy (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI’s Facial Recognition System Targeted an Innocent Person up to 1 out of 5 Times (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI Agrees to Share Facial Recognition Searches with All Police Departments (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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