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Police facial recognition technology raises civil rights concerns

Carl Lender

Most people would not voluntarily stand in a line-up, but one in two American adults is currently in a law enforcement face recognition system. That's according to a report released today by the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University's law school.

The report says the Michigan State Police can perform face recognition searches on all Michigan drivers license and state ID photos - not just mug shots. 

"I think we generally believe we're getting the right to drive - not that we're giving the police permission to use our photo in a perpetual line up," says Clare Garvie, one of the reports co-authors.

Alvaro Bedoya is the executive director of the Center for Privacy & Technology and also a co-author of the report. He says the use of facial ID technology raises serious civil rights and civil liberties concerns.

"Face recognition systems may be least accurate for the population they are most likely to be used on - African Americans," says Bedoya. 

The authors found no state has passed a law comprehensively regulating police use of face recognition technology. The authors say this is problematic because the technology's use raises many serious issues that are deserving of public debate.

Examples include:

  • What photos should be included in the database (just mug shots, or all state photo ids)?
  • What legal standard is required before police can launch a face recognition search?
  • Does it allow the police to monitor the population in ways that stifle First Amendment and privacy rights and create a widespread surveillance system?
  • Is there a transparent policy and has there been an opportunity for input from the public, including civil liberties groups?
  • What kind of audits are in place to monitor accuracy and check that the system is being appropriately used? 

Garvie said the Michigan State Police has developed a use policy governing its facial ID system that is posted on its website.  But the report says MSP's policy does not require probable cause before launching a facial recognition search on a desktop computer. The search can be performed for a "law enforcement reason."