LAST YEAR, A RUSSIAN startup announced that it could scan the faces of people passing by Moscow’s thousands of CCTV cameras and pick out wanted criminals or missing persons. Unlike much face recognition technology — which runs stills from videos or photographs after the fact — NTechLab’s FindFace algorithm has achieved a feat that once only seemed possible in the science fictional universe of “Minority Report”: It can determine not just who someone is, but where they’ve been, where they’re going, and whether they have an outstanding warrant, immigration detainer, or unpaid traffic ticket.
For years, the development of real-time face recognition has been hampered by poor video resolution, the angles of bodies in motion, and limited computing power. But as systems begin to transcend these technical barriers, they are also outpacing the development of policies to constrain them. Civil liberties advocates fear that the rise of real-time face recognition alongside the growing number of police body cameras creates the conditions for a perfect storm of mass surveillance.
“The main concern is that we’re already pretty far along in terms of having this real-time technology, and we already have the cameras,” said Jake Laperruque, a fellow at the Constitution Project. “These cameras are small, hard to notice, and all over the place. That’s a pretty lethal combination for privacy unless we have reasonable rules on how they can be used together.”
This imminent reality has led several civil liberties groups to call on police departments and legislators to implement clear policies on camera footage retention, biometrics, and privacy. On Wednesday morning, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology, where advocates emphasized the dangers of allowing advancements in real-time recognition to broaden surveillance powers. As Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, told Congress, pairing the technology with body cameras, in particular, “will redefine the nature of public spaces.”
The integration of real-time face recognition with body-worn cameras is further along than lawmakers and citizens realize. A recent Justice Department-funded survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that at least nine out of 38 manufacturers of body cameras currently have facial recognition capacities or have built in an option for such technology to be used later.
At least five U.S. police departments, including those in Los Angeles and New York, have already purchased or looked into purchasing real-time face recognition for their CCTV cameras, according to a study of face recognition technology published by Bedoya and other researchers at Georgetown.
Civil liberties experts warn that just walking down the street in a major urban center could turn into an automatic law enforcement interaction. With the ability to glean information at a distance, officers would not need to justify a particular interaction or find probable cause for a search, stop, or frisk. Instead, everybody walking past a given officer on his patrol could be subject to a “perpetual line-up,” as the Georgetown study put it.
“Are you going to go to a gun rights rally or a protest against the president, for that matter, if the government can secretly scan your face and identify you?” Bedoya asked the House Committee in his testimony on Wednesday.
“It’s not hard to imagine the worst way this could play out today, with a digital version of a J. Edgar Hoover-style ‘enemies list,’” Laperruque said, of the use of a real-time watchlist. “Even if we don’t have [a list], the mere threat develops a chilling effect.”
The provisions for such a system are already in place. Other types of real-time searches of biometric databases — such as mobile fingerprinting and rapid DNA tests — are now part of law enforcement routines and face few legal challenges. FBI searches of state driver’s license databases using face recognition software are almost six times more common than federal court-ordered wiretaps, according to the Georgetown study.
The databases, too, have already been built. Georgetown researchers estimated that one in every two faces of adults in the United States — many of whom have never committed a crime — are captured in searchable federal, state, or local databases. The Department of Defense, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are just a few of the federal agencies that can gain access to one or more state or local face recognition systems.
Credit to theintercept.com