There are so few times I call for more laws added to the books, I could probably name them all on one hand if I had a full day to think about it. We have plenty of laws. Too many. But as technology opens the doors to more opportunities and more risks, it’s important to get ahead of them before abuse can come into play. One such technology is facial recognition as it’s used by law enforcement to identify suspects.
Unlike many privacy proponents, I actually appreciate the proper use of facial recognition. But the righteously paranoid privacy proponent in me also understands that this could very easily be abused by law enforcement, private companies, and government entities if there aren’t restrictions put into place.
Let’s discuss the proper use of facial recognition first. The software is a wonderful tool in identifying people who may have committed a crime or been victims of a crime. CCTV footage of someone robbing a store can be run through facial recognition software to identify possible matches in the criminal databases. This is happening today without the software and has been for centuries. But instead of rounding up people for a lineup or plopping a mugshot book in front of a witness whose memory or vision may be unreliable, the software can help pinpoint potential suspects to explore.
That’s it. That’s the extent of proper use of this technology. It should not be used as evidence for probably cause. It should not be relied upon as anything other than a pointer for law enforcement to focus their investigations on likely suspects, ruling them out with proper investigative techniques and collecting evidence on the perpetrator once they believe they’ve identified the right person.
Anything beyond pointing law enforcement in the right direction is a breach of privacy and should be outlawed.
We cannot have facial recognition software cataloging the whereabouts or actions of citizens. This is what’s happening in China now. It’s even being proposed by some Democrats, including presidential candidates. Such an intrusion is unAmerican and should be anathema to a free society.
We also cannot allow facial recognition software to be a crutch for law enforcement. As appealing as it might sound to give access to run facial recognition software through the massive network of CCTV feeds in any given city, this will invariably lead to false positives. It’s too enticing of a tool to put in the hands of anyone, even those charged with maintaining law and order. Imagine a scenario in which an suspicious spouse tracks their potentially cheating significant other using this software. Or a politician using influence in the department to track foes.
The potential scenarios don’t even need to be nefarious to breach our privacy. What if Suspect #1 is scene in video asking someone for directions to the bus station. An investigator might find this suspicious and start tracking the random person in case they’re in on the crime. This type of Big Brother power cannot be placed in the hands of anyone. There’s too much at risk.
A recent article by NBC News highlights the various uses of facial recognition software as well as the trends in law enforcement today. They rightly note that most agencies do not even mention the use of the software since they do not use it as evidence. This is understandable as an investigator is not required in most circumstances to reveal how they caught the scent, only the steps they took to secure evidence. But this lack of transparency can prevent necessary oversight into how the technology was used and if there were any breaches of privacy that occurred.
I’m all in for technology that enables law enforcement to have advantages over the criminals they seek. But that technology cannot be used against the innocent. Currently, there’s nothing preventing law enforcement from abusing it.