Is the growing use of facial recognition systems by US law enforcement getting out of hand? After four years looking into the issue, the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown thinks Americans have major cause for concern. These systems have spread rapidly and now make up a patchwork of networks spanning the FBI and up to 30 states. They also contain the faces of 117 million people – half the adult US population.
The technology is used passively, for example to identify a suspect by getting a computer program to trawl through large numbers of photographs until it finds what it thinks are facial matches. Typically, these images are taken from databases of driving licenses held by US states, many of which allow searches to be run on each other’s systems. Currently, at least 26 states allow police to point facial recognition systems at their ID databases. As the researchers point out, this will seem legitimate to many people, even if the parameters for how searches are carried out are neither stated nor regulated in any way.
The FBI has invested heavily in the technology, last June admitting it had amassed a huge and growing searchable database comprising driving license images from a subset of states as well as passport photos and visa applications.
The authors are even more worried about that active surveillance, where facial recognition is used in real time to sift images from street and other public cameras to identify suspects. It might sound like science fiction but the technology is being used today by at least five police departments including Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles, the authors say.
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Naked Security @ Sophos