Study warns that half of all Americans on face database
19 October 2016 15:33 GMT

A report published by the Georgetown Center on Privacy & Technology has stated that US police forces are deploying face recognition technology in widespread, advanced, and unregulated areas.

 The study, The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America finds that one in four law enforcement agencies can access face recognition and that its use is almost completely unregulated. 

Of the 52 agencies that acknowledged using face recognition in response to 106 records requests, the authors found that only one had obtained legislative approval before doing so.

“Innocent people don’t belong in criminal databases,” said Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law and co-author of the report. “By using face recognition to scan the faces on 26 states’ driver’s license and ID photos, police and the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual line-up. This has never been done for fingerprints or DNA. It’s uncharted and frankly dangerous territory.” 

“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight,” said Clare Garvie, a Center associate and the author who led the Center’s records requests to over 100 law enforcement agencies. “But those controls by and large don’t exist today. 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. It’s a wild west.”

The report argues that police use of face recognition will have a profound impact on African Americans. A 2012 study, co-authored by an FBI expert, found that face recognition is less accurateon African Americans, women and young people. African Americans are also likely overenrolled in mug shot-based systems as a result of racial disparities in arrest rates. Yet the report reveals that police advertise the technology as being blind to race—and that two major face recognition companiesdo not test for bias.

In a letter sent this morning, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, and other civil rights and civil liberties organizations called on the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the potential racial bias in police use of the technology. 

“Face recognition systems are powerful—but they can also be biased,” the letter states. “A growing body of evidence suggests that law enforcement use of face recognition technology is having a disparate impact on communities of color, potentially exacerbating and entrenching existing policing disparities.”