Facial recognition technology and the threat to liberty

  • 13 March 2019
  • NormanL

The struggle to keep government from encroaching on our individual liberties never ends -- but it does change. Case in point: facial recognition technology, a rapidly growing field that has the potential to become a perfect tool of would-be tyrants:

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan watchdog, has just issued a report called Facing the Future of Surveillance. It starkly outlines the dangers to liberty posed by this technology, and it offers some recommendations for how to limit abuses.

Facial recognition technology combines the software for creating faceprints with vast photo databases and a pervasive deployment of surveillance cameras. The report notes that law enforcement can use facial recognition technology for four purposes: arrest identification (to confirm an arrestee's ID), field identification (to ID a person stopped by an officer), investigative identification (to obtain images for IDing an unidentified suspect), and real-time surveillance (to match unidentified folks to a watchlist).

Roughly half of all American adults already have pre-identified photos in databases that are used for law enforcement facial recognition searches. (As a user of Known Traveler and CLEAR, I am definitely among them.) Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras operated by police agencies are proliferating, as are police body cameras. The biggest worry is that the government could weave together the feeds from 30 million private security cameras to build a CCTV network on the scale similar to China's surveillance system.

Also, the authorities can scrape all those photos you've uploaded onto social media platforms to augment their image databases.

The POGO report highlights the fact that current facial recognition technologies have huge false positive rates and thus would mostly draw law enforcement attention to innocent citizens, even if they boost the "efficiency" of police surveillance. But the threats to civil liberties are heightened if we assume that facial recogniton technology is nearly perfect.

All of which points to the growing Fourth Amendment concerns over facial recognition technolgy:

The ways in which government could use unchecked facial recognition to oppress citizens are myriad, but let's just reflect on one example. In 1958, the State of Alabama demanded that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hand over its membership lists. In NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled against the state: "Immunity from state scrutiny of petitioner's membership lists is here so related to the right of petitioner's members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in doing so as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment." As the POGO report notes, the police could now, without consent or notification, obtain something like a group's membership list by simply deploying a camera outside one of its events and scanning the images through facial recognition software.

"If individuals believe that each camera on the street is cataloging every aspect of their daily lives, they may begin to alter their activities to hide from potential surveillance," notes the report. "That is something we must avoid, and we can do so through sensible reforms which demonstrate that checks against abuse are in place."

There are local efforts to ban facial recognition technology, but a broader, more nuanced, national effort may be required.  There are uses for this, and any sort, of technology that improves some facet of our lives. But in the hands of government, almost inevitably, technology becomes a tool to limit individual liberty. You can read the full POGO report here.