Facial recognition getting thorny for law enforcement

By Jessica Klein

People were outraged this week to learn that officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been using facial recognition technology to search for undocumented immigrants in states’ driver’s license databases. So far, ICE has looked at photos in two states where undocumented immigrants can get licenses—Utah and Vermont.

“These states have never told undocumented people that when they apply for a driver’s license they are also turning over their face to ICE,” said Harrison Rudolph, a privacy expert at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “That is a huge bait and switch.”

This isn’t a new practice. The FBI, for one, has been searching databases of driver’s licenses and visa applications for years, but that doesn’t mean people are happy about it. In fact, U.S. cities have started cracking down on facial recognition technology. In May, San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban its local government and law enforcement from using the tech, with Somerville, Massachusetts following its lead in June. Now other cities, like Oakland and Berkley, are considering bans.

A major manufacturer of police body cameras feels similarly to these city’s officials. Axon, which sells equipment to 48 of the continent’s 79 biggest city law enforcement agencies, released a report detailing how facial recognition technology “is not advanced enough for law enforcement to depend on.” (Meanwhile, smart glasses company Vuzix announced the development of its facial recognition-equipped glasses last month.)

Axon isn’t wrong to be dubious of facial recognition tech. Racial bias has long plagued the technology. Amazon’s facial recognition poorly identifies gender in people with darker skin, and Google’s falsely labeled a group of black friends as “gorillas” in 2015 (don’t worry—Google fixed the problem by removing the word “gorilla” from the software’s vocabulary).

No wonder Detroit residents fear police using this technology. As of now, the city’s thousands of surveillance cameras feed footage to facial recognition software, and “that’s a problem,” George Byers II, a software developer, said to a board of police officers in June. “We live in a major black city.”

Cities beyond the U.S. aren’t keen on police using facial recognition, either. London civilians called for police to stop using the tech this month. But it’s not just law enforcement giving facial recognition the old college try. A convenience store in Tacoma, Washington is currently testing a system where anyone who enters the store will get their face matched to a database of crime suspects. “That’s a privacy violation,” a customer said. “They should have a sign to notify you that they’re comparing it to photos of criminals.”

Notifying customers that they’re submitting to facial recognition is one problem. Notifying them how to opt out is another—one that Freedom on the Net researcher Allie Funk came up against on a recent Delta flight. When passengers were told their boarding process would include facial recognition instead of passport scans, they weren’t told how they could request the latter. Funk ultimately did, but the process wasn’t straightforward. Only two percent of Delta passengers opted out of facial recognition last year.

 Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

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