About Face – Law Enforcement And Facial Recognition Technology


Why San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition software for police and local government agencies

It helped identify the suspect in a mass shooting in Annapolis, Maryland last June. Police use it to hunt down criminals.  But for all of its benefits, facial recognition technology comes at a cost-our privacy.

Facial recognition software is regularly used to help police and law enforcement identify suspects

Are we living in Orwell’s dystopian future described in the book, 1984? The realm of near limitless surveillance and data collection performed on law abiding citizens undoubtedly dwarfs whatever he could have imagined. Orwell’s narrator Winston described the surveillance as “always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.” While ‘big brother’ is watching you, there are attempts by some city officials in California to set boundaries to curtail its usage by the police.

Recently, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition technology for police and city agencies. The city’s Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 1 to prevent further implementation of the controversial technology.  This means that San Francisco city departments are required to get approval first where surveillance technology may be used, including mundane policing measures such as license-plate readers.

Facial Recognition Uses

Facial recognition software is used everywhere. You can use it to unlock your iPhone or tag your friend on Facebook.  It can even help you find your soulmate. But, how should it be applied to the government and law enforcement?

Proponents of facial recognition software claim that it helps law enforcement act more efficiently by using real-time technology, such as when the software is attached to officer body cams. Faces can be run across a database (such as DMV records) to identify and match suspects to locations for questioning. The tech can also help identify missing children or adults. Due to its pervasiveness, multiple branches of law enforcement can work together in emergency situations.

Civil Liberties in Question

Many argue that police surveillance conducted with facial recognition systems can be problematic. The technology is often invisible to people, but people are never invisible to the technology.  Those who favor an outright ban of the technology for policing say it’s unreliable and deepens racial bias as it tends to have a higher margin of error for women and those with darker skin. Legal experts draw the analogy that this sort of technology and data collection constitutes an unlawful “search,” and lacks the basic standards of probable cause or reasonable, individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.

San Francisco’s Decision

The ordinance in San Francisco applies not only to facial recognition software, but to other technology as well, including automated license plate readers and gunshot-detection tools. The vote solidifies the requirement of the San Francisco public transportation system, also known as BART, to outline how it watches and tracks its rider passengers.

It’s not all inclusive though. The legislation in San Francisco forbids the technology’s use by local police, but areas controlled under the federal government, such as the San Francisco International Airport or the Port of San Francisco, may still monitor individuals who pass through. Additionally, the ban does not prevent businesses or individuals from using the software.

Real-time Police Lineup?

By allowing constant surveillance, legal experts worry that law enforcement is eroding privacy safeguards little by little. Facial recognition technology subjects citizens, not accused of any crime, to a veritable non-stop, real-time police lineup when the software is linked to officer body cams. This sort of strategy shifts interactions from presumptive innocence to invasive monitoring.

It can be used to violate privacy, chilling free speech and freedom of association. Further, once collected, there are no national standards on how this sort of technology should be used, how long it can be kept, and who has the right to access it. Over time, its ubiquity has allowed the government to institute new measures. But it has done so secretly which has undermined the public trust in its usage.

For now, San Francisco stands as the first major city to institute such measures, but Oakland, California and the state of Massachusetts are also examining bills that reduce or ban facial recognition technology in the future.

For now, most levels of law enforcement will continue using the software and big brother will, for the most part, still be watching.

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