Cops Have a Database of 117M Faces. You’re Probably in It
At some point we should assert and implement checks on public surveillance.
“Face recognition technology lets the police identify you from far away and in secret without ever talking to you,” says Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center for Privacy & Technology. “Unless you’ve been arrested, the chances are you’re not in a criminal fingerprint database or a criminal DNA database either, yet by standing for a driver’s license photo at least 117 million adults have been enrolled in a face recognition network searched by the police or the FBI.” He went on to describe the databases as an unprecedented privacy violation: “a national biometric database that is populated primarily by law abiding people.”
The report notes that no state has passed comprehensive legislation to define the parameters of how facial recognition should be used in law enforcement investigations. Only a handful of departments around the country have voluntarily imposed limits on searches to require reasonable suspicion or necessitate that they be used only in investigation of a serious crime. Similarly, few departments have enacted standards for testing the accuracy of their digital systems or teaching staff to visually confirm face matches—a skill that seems like it would be innate, but actually requires specialized training.
The report also raises unexpected concerns about the potential for racial bias in the facial recognition databases. Law enforcement agencies have, in many cases, argued that the biometric tools reduce racial policing. After all, a computer doesn’t know the societal meaning of race or gender; it simply sorts and matches photos based on numeric analysis of features and patterns. But research has shown that facial recognition algorithms aren’t as impartial as they seem. Depending on the data sets used to train machine learning systems, they can be become far better at identifying people of some races than others. For example, some research indicates that facial recognition systems in the United States have lower accuracy when attempting to identify African Americans. Meanwhile, since law enforcement facial recognition systems often include mug shots and arrest rates among African Americans are higher than the general population, algorithms may be disproportionately able to find a match for black suspects.