Photographer: Kevin Case
WASHINGTON — The faces of 117 million Americans — around one-third of the nation’s population — are on file in law enforcement databases, used regularly by facial recognition software to check against images of suspected criminals.
And most Americans don’t even know it.
The data is part of a new report from the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law School.
“Law enforcement face recognition is unregulated and in many instances out of control,” according to the report, dubbed “The Perpetual Line-Up.”
Researchers at Georgetown made 100 records requests to police departments as part of what the report called “the most comprehensive survey to date of law enforcement face recognition.” The investigation lasted a full year.
Facial or face recognition software consists of sophisticated algorithms that carefully examine the faces within photos, supposedly spotting the targeted person out of millions of possibilities.
What the report discovered was both shocking and disturbing. At least 26 states – and perhaps as many as 30 – allow law enforcement to “run or request searches against their databases of driver’s license and ID photos.” Roughly one in two American adults had his or her ID photo searched this way.
Some technology lets officers in the field use face recognition to search databases of driver’s license photos.
The practice, the report said, is largely unregulated.
“No state has passed a law comprehensively regulating police face recognition. We are not aware of any agency that requires warrants for searches or limits them to serious crimes,” the report said
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The lack of regulation on the practice has “consequences,” the report said.
“The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office system runs 8,000 monthly searches on the faces of seven million Florida drivers—without requiring that officers have even a reasonable suspicion before running a search,” the report said.
And it could get worse. Major police departments, the report said, are “exploring real-time face recognition on live surveillance camera video” which would allow police to “continuously scan the faces of pedestrians walking by a street surveillance camera.”
One problem with facial recognition software, the report said, is that it could stifle free speech.
“There is also a history of FBI and police surveillance of civil rights protests,” the report said. “Of the 52 agencies that we found to use (or have used) face recognition, we found only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, whose face recognition use policy expressly prohibits its officers from using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech.”
Facial recognition also is not as accurate as fingerprinting. One major software company boasts a 95 percent accuracy rate but “disclaims liability for failing to meet that threshold.”
Regulation, the report said, is needed.
“Such laws should require the FBI or the police to have a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct prior to a face recognition search,” the report said. “… Mug shots, not driver’s license and ID photos, should be the default photo databases for face recognition, and they should be periodically scrubbed to eliminate the innocent. Except for identity theft and fraud cases, searches of license and ID photos should require a court order issued upon a showing of probable cause.”
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