Facial Recognition Offers Promise — and Pitfalls
Security Cameras Stirring Privacy Concerns
Lt. Dan Zehnder says he looks forward to the day when patrol officers can walk the Las Vegas Strip, use their body cameras to record pedestrians' faces, stream the footage to the cloud and get back an almost instantaneous answer: “Hey, that guy you just passed 20 feet ago has an outstanding warrant.”1
Zehnder, who runs the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's body-camera program, thinks that day is almost here — and so do civil libertarians, who worry about what this will mean for privacy.
Las Vegas police Sgt. Miguel Garcia attaches a body camera to his shirt collar at the start of his shift on Feb. 17. Civil liberties groups worry that body cameras, increasingly used nationwide, will be linked with facial-recognition software, turning them into mass-surveillance tools. (Getty Images/Chicago Tribune/John J. Kim)
As police increasingly use body cameras on patrol, civil liberties groups fear they will soon pair the cameras with facial-recognition software, turning them into mass-surveillance tools. That ability already exists. A Justice Department-commissioned survey found that 10 of 38 body-camera vendors offer models that allow facial-recognition software to be used with the camera or include an option for the software to be used later.2
Facial-recognition software analyzes someone's face and tries to match it against an identified face in a database.
“By combining body cameras with tagging technologies [such as facial recognition], government agencies could take videos of and catalog every individual attending a protest, participating in a religious ceremony, going to a union meeting or entering a health clinic,” said a report from The Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank in Washington.
Or a police department could send someone's facial image to every officer's body camera to track that person's location in real time. “Such a measure could occur on a mass scale, allowing police to place a digital ‘tail’ on hundreds of individuals without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” the think tank warned.3
A quarter of state or local police departments already use facial recognition with still photographs, according to a study by Georgetown University's Center on Privacy & Technology. For example, police officers run facial-recognition searches using photographs they have taken with smartphones or tablets of individuals who can't or won't identify themselves.4
Utah's Statewide Information & Analysis Center uses facial recognition to conduct about a thousand checks per year, according to Utah Department of Public Safety Director Maj. Brian Redd. “We've helped law enforcement agencies solve frauds and home invasions and bank robberies,” he said.5
Twenty-nine states allow facial-recognition searches of driver's license photos. More than 125 million American adults, or slightly more than half, are in databases that law enforcement can search with facial-recognition software, according to the Georgetown report.6
Utah once used its software to identify a man who was discovered badly injured on the side of a road. “It's very beneficial. It's been a great tool for us,” said Redd.7
But civil libertarians warn that police officers' motives aren't always so benign. Police in San Diego County have used facial recognition since 2012. In 2014, civil rights attorney Victor Manuel Torres started receiving numerous complaints from residents who had been stopped by police officers and photographed without their permission. The complaints stopped in 2015 after the county police adopted a formal facial-recognition policy to guide its use.8
“Changes in technology are likely to make suspicionless searches even more common,” Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Georgetown center, said in testimony before a congressional subcommittee last month. “The most advanced use of face recognition … scans the face of every man, woman or child who passes in front of a surveillance camera in or close to real-time.”
Law enforcement agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City and West Virginia “either have bought this technology, have announced plans to use it, or are actively exploring it” for use with closed-circuit television cameras, he said.9
But civil liberties groups worry most about pairing facial recognition with body cameras: the video images would be more accurate than those from fixed surveillance cameras because body cameras can be aimed directly at someone's face.
The ACLU recommends that police officers never use body cameras for routine filming of protests and rallies, in part because of the potential of facial recognition, says Chad Marlow, the organization's advocacy and policy counsel. Participants would know that the police could identify them using facial recognition and put them on a list of people to watch, Marlow says. “It would kill free speech.”
Civil liberties groups also worry about the use of facial recognition during routine patrols, when officers on the street could stream facial images from body cameras to databases to identify individuals or check for outstanding warrants.
Such outstanding warrant notifications, cautions Jake Laperruque, The Constitution Project's senior counsel, should be given only for serious crimes and not for misdemeanors, such as overdue parking tickets or loitering. “A lot of jurisdictions have a huge number of outstanding warrants for small misdemeanors, sometimes half the population,” says Laperruque.
Police officers could use those outstanding warrants as an excuse to arrest people they may not like, possibly including minorities or protesters, or simply to bring in someone who is giving them a hard time, says Laperruque.
“If you're going to give the government increased power that could be used in some ways for surveillance, it's really, really important that we get the policies right and put proper limits in place to make sure it can't be abused,” says Laperruque.
But so far, states haven't stepped forward to pass such facial-recognition legislation. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy and no systems checking for bias,” said Clare Garvie, a co-author of the report from Georgetown's Center on Privacy & Technology, where she is an associate. “It's a wild West.”10
— Barbara Mantel
When two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, investigators immediately began screening footage from bystanders' smartphones and government and private surveillance cameras blanketing the area. It took several days, but they found what they were looking for: suspicious images of two men, one with a backpack, captured by a department store camera.11
The men were quickly identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and over a two-day manhunt, Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar captured. Dzhokhar was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in the bombing that killed three and wounded more than 200.12
For some, the episode was a powerful example of the potential for public and private surveillance cameras to help law enforcement deter or solve crimes.
“They serve an important function for the city in providing the type of safety on a day-to-day basis — not just for big events like a marathon, but day-to-day purposes,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of Chicago, which has the nation's largest surveillance camera network.13
Nevertheless, studies of the cameras' impact have shown mixed results.14 And civil libertarians say street cameras and other surveillance equipment that indiscriminately scoop up broad swaths of information raise privacy concerns because they are trained on the general public as well as crime suspects. This equipment, said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at The Constitution Project, a think tank in Washington, is “upending how we view surveillance and the limits the Fourth Amendment places on it in maintenance of a democratic society.”15
The number of closed-circuit television cameras monitored by law enforcement officials in the United States is unknown, but there are scattered reports about their spread. In Detroit, more than 100 businesses have invested in high-definition surveillance cameras since January 2016 and linked them via the Internet to a police command center.16
A New York City Police Department security camera is mounted on a light pole across the street from Trump Tower. The NYPD reportedly monitors 6,000 street cameras, of which two-thirds are privately owned. (Getty Images/Drew Angerer)
The New York City Police Department reportedly monitors 6,000 street cameras, of which two-thirds are privately owned.17 Chicago has 22,000 integrated surveillance cameras positioned throughout the city, including on trains and buses. The cameras employ facial recognition and automatic tracking, which means a computer can track an individual from one camera to the next.18
State and local police departments, including in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Texas and Washington state, also are using aerial drones equipped with cameras and sometimes night vision. Police typically use the equipment to document crime scenes, assist SWAT teams and locate suspects in real time.19
Automated license-plate readers can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute. That means in a week, the Los Angeles sheriff's and police departments are able to collect data on about 3 million vehicles, according to the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights organization.20
These high-speed cameras, typically mounted on light poles or police cars, connect to a computer database and can check if a car is stolen, the registration is expired or the owner has an outstanding arrest warrant. The collected data are stored.
All these technologies trouble civil libertarians to varying degrees, but license-plate readers are one of the most disturbing “because they are truly a dragnet surveillance,” says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute in New York City. For example, the Virginia State Police used the readers to record the license plates of vehicles arriving from Virginia for the inauguration of former President Barack Obama in 2009, she says.
Police say the data are useful for finding stolen cars or even kidnapped children. “We've got numerous cases where this is used as an investigative resource,” said Sgt. Kyle Hoertsch of the Sacramento County, Calif., Sheriff's Department. “We use it in every aspect of the job.”21
Public involvement is the key to balancing privacy issues with the technologies' crime-fighting value, says Levinson-Waldman. Local and state officials, with public input, can pass measures about when and how the technologies can be used, how long collected data can be kept and whether search warrants are needed, she says.
Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a group in Washington that provides training and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, agrees and says police should also solicit public opinion directly.
Bueermann was police chief in Redlands, Calif., from 1998 to 2011 and oversaw the installation of a surveillance camera system on poles and buildings throughout the city. “We created a Citizens Privacy Council, which anyone could join,” says Bueermann, “and with each successive camera we wanted to install, we went to the council and got them to sign off.”
When he wanted to install microphones on some of the cameras, the council told him it was “too creepy, and so we created a policy to never put microphones on these cameras,” he says.
Redlands is a small city, with a population of about 71,000. But that doesn't excuse larger cities from doing the same, says Bueermann. “The police departments can hold precinct-level meetings about this stuff, and they can hold meetings in city council districts.”
— Barbara Mantel
Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Mantel, B. (2017, April 21). High-tech policing. CQ researcher, 27, 337-360. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017042120
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017042120