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Facial recognition and law enforcement: A recipe out of Orwell

By   /   August 14, 2015  /   No Comments

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TODAY’S 1984?: There is growing interest from law enforcement agencies to adopt facial recognition technology, but the lack of oversight hearkens the warnings from Orwell.

By Ryan Hagemann | Watchdog Arena

George Orwell once said, “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.” Fast-forward to today, where private information captured through advanced facial recognition software could be the new Orwellian threat.

Earlier this week, a New York Times article discussed the growing interest in, and abstention from, the use of facial technology by law enforcement agencies. It specifically narrowed in on the emerging popularity of such software algorithms in San Diego, noting a number of concerning developments.

In San Diego and the surrounding region, there is currently no requirement to file a police report if officers use the technology but do not make an arrest. As the NYT article notes, over the course of January and February, San Diego law enforcement agencies attempted to identify individuals using this technology on more than 20,600 occasions, but found a match to criminal records in only approximately 5,100 instances – a 25 percent success rate.

Although various localities throughout the country are currently toying with the idea of utilizing facial recognition software tied to municipal cameras and funneling the wealth of visages to a central hub some, cities such as Boston have refused to make such investments, citing ethical and civil liberties concerns.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), however, is investing heavily in this space with its Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative, a $1 billion project focused on collecting fingerprints, iris scans, and other biometric information. The objective is to create a one-stop database for over 18,000 separate police departments and law enforcement agencies to target and identify individuals for investigative purposes.

More concerning is the fact that these individuals, most of whom have no criminal record and are guilty of no crime, will all be included in the FBI’s database. Domestic law enforcement, it would seem, is looking to up its surveillance capability game.

Unfortunately, what seems to have fallen by the way side in the quest for a more effective technological solution to criminal identification is the civil liberties and privacy side of the equation. Similar issues have been raised with the use of police body cameras.

The use of such cameras are ostensibly billed as a means of more accurately recounting events surrounding specious police behavior and interaction with citizens, but privacy advocates have argued that the cure may be worse than the disease. The more police that are outfitted with such devices, the more likely police could be used as mobile surveillance units – and with the possibility of the NGI aggregating the faces of millions upon millions of Americans for later review and identification, the stakes are indeed high for civil libertarians.

Such a regime holds the potential to massively expand the surveillance panopticon, making ubiquitous and unchecked surveillance ever more a mainstay of everyday life in America. And what of this technology’s application in the private sector?

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on its findings surrounding the privacy issues associated with the commercial use of facial recognition technology, noting:

No federal privacy law expressly regulates commercial uses of facial recognition technology, and laws do not fully address key privacy issues stakeholders have raised … and the privacy issues that have been raised by [this technology] serve as yet another example of the need to adapt federal privacy law to reflect new technologies.

While the concerns surrounding private firms using facial identification software merit a more robust conversation about privacy in the digital age, it is important to recognize the distinction between law enforcement’s use of this technology and the government’s. Governments have the power to fine, imprison, and apply coercive force; private firms do not.

Although there are certainly benefits to the use of facial recognition technology, the costs to civil liberties may be too much for a democratic society to bear.

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.


Ryan Hagemann is a civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center. His research specialties include privacy and surveillance, robotics and automation, decentralized networks, Internet policy, and issues at the intersection of sociology, economics, and technology. He has previously authored works on the economic and social ramifications of autonomous vehicles with the Mercatus Center. He also maintains an adjunct fellowship with TechFreedom, a libertarian nonprofit dedicated to advancing online freedom. Ryan graduated from Boston University with a BA in International Relations, Foreign Policy and Security Studies and holds a Master of Public Policy in Science and Technology Policy from George Mason University.