A breathtaking new report from the Center for Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School finds that one in two American adults is in a face recognition database. The numbers are so huge in large part because states are increasingly allowing the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to use drivers license databases as “perpetual lineups,” the report says. Face recognition technology is spreading like wildfire throughout the United States, without the necessary public debate, legal restrictions, and policy guidance to ensure it can be used without violating the civil rights and civil liberties of millions of people not suspected of serious crimes.
There is no state or federal law requiring government agencies to limit face recognition searches, or to perform audits to ensure system accuracy or check for abuse. Nonetheless, sheriffs departments, state and local law enforcement agencies, and the FBI are all in the face recognition game to varying degrees nationwide. Some of the large trend-setting police departments, like the NYPD and LAPD, reportedly have facial recognition programs, but refused to provide records in response to Georgetown’s requests. As is typical when it comes to the most privacy-invasive kinds of digital surveillance, law enforcement is largely staying mum on its use of this troublesome tool—even if that means they are potentially violating state public records law in the process.
Making matters worse, evidence suggests “law enforcement use of face recognition technology is having a disparate impact on communities of color, potentially exacerbating and entrenching existing policing disparities,” as the ACLU and other civil rights groups write in a letter to the Department of Justice today. The groups ask the DOJ Civil Rights Division to investigate the extent to which this disparate impact is occurring nationwide.
Here in Massachusetts, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has used face recognition for a decade, looking for people who apply for a fraudulent second license. Despite some success, the program has also run into serious accuracy problems. The Massachusetts State Police refused to confirm or deny its use of the technology to Georgetown researchers, despite its publicly reported involvement in RMV face recognition program.
In June 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published its own report about FBI face recognition systems, warning that they were privacy-invasive, untested, and secretive. The report described agreements between 16 state registries of motor vehicles and the FBI, which grant the federal law enforcement agency access to their trove of drivers license images for face recognition searches. The report stated that an additional 18 states, including Massachusetts, were in negotiations with the FBI to sign up for similar agreements. Upon discovering this, I shot off a public records request to the Massachusetts RMV, and posted a blog about it. Then something highly unusual happened: The GAO modified its published report to remove the reference to the 18 states in negotiations with the FBI. Something smelled funny.
I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on with the Massachusetts RMV and the FBI on face recognition. I’m still awaiting responsive documents to my June 2016 public records request. And today, after reading the opaque reference to the Massachusetts State Police in the Georgetown report, I’ve filed another request, this time with the State Police.
I’ll update this site when we get substantive information about these programs. Meanwhile, read the Georgetown report on face recognition nationwide. We have a lot of work to do to make sure technologies like face recognition don’t obliterate anonymity in physical space.