Facial Recognition: Privacy vs Security

August 9, 2014 will live in the hearts of many as a day of a tragic injustice. A young black teenager was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. People across the country protested the behavior of the officer, deeming his actions to be based off of feelings of racial superiority rather than justice. The accounts of witnesses vary, but if there were a video that showed exactly what happened, it would make all the difference. In the wake of the shooting, and ultimately the death, of 18-year-old Michael Brown, there has been a bigger push than ever to have police officers wear body cameras. President Obama strongly advocates for such cameras and has proposed a plan that would pour 75 million dollars into federal spending to allot 50,000 recording devices for police departments. However, the decision to implement body cameras is much more complex than just finding the money to do so. There are many privacy concerns that come along with this decisions. Concerns such as when will the camera be on (do the officers get to pick and choose what is going to be recorded?), how long will the footage be kept, who can access the footage, will the cameras hinder people’s willingness to give cops tips, what technology will be used, and what privacy infringements will accompany these camera? Enabling these cameras to have facial recognition technology is one of these privacy concerns and this post will address those concerns.

First, to truly understand the debate, it is essential to know how facial recognition technology operates. Facial recognition technology uses an algorithm to measure unique facial features such as the space between the eyes, the depth of the eye sockets, the shape of the cheekbones, the length of the jawline, or the width of the nose. It uses these measurements to make what is called a face print. Face prints are just as unique as fingerprints; although, fingerprints are still a more accurate source of biometric identification. Another algorithm is used to then run face prints with other photos that are in the database, searching for a match.

The use of this technology is not new—Facebook and Google+ use it to help you identify friends or yourself in photos, Find My FaceMate uses facial recognition technology for dating purposes, casinos use it to monitor players that have been marked as cheaters or suspicious people. There is even a university in the UK that was using facial recognition technology to take roll. Companies are working to use facial recognition technology to find the age and gender of someone looking at their digital kiosk so that they can advertise specifically to that person. The ethics of all these uses are debatable, but there are currently no legal restrictions on commercial use of facial recognition technology. However, when it comes to law enforcement, the idea of utilizing facial recognition technology is primarily seen as negative by our society.

But, why? We’ve all seen movies that portray facial recognition technology as heroic: it’s a fast way to scan a group of people and find the criminal. It helps the good guys win in a matter of seconds. However, there are some legitimate privacy concerns such as what database would the police officers use and would use of this technology by law enforcement destroy anonymity?

The FBI is working to build a database that is “bigger, faster, better”. This database is called Next Generation Identification (NGI) and currently contains more than just fingerprints, it also contains face prints. The NGI does not get the images from mug shots alone. In fact, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, by this year, the NGI will contain 4.3 million images that were not taken for criminal purposes. EFF goes on to explain how if you apply for a job that requires a background check or fingerprinting, the FBI stores your prints in its civil database. However, with the use of facial recognition technology expanding, employers may require a photograph, or “mug shot”. This would then put your information into the NGI along with your fingerprints. The danger in storing criminal and non-criminal data together is that non-criminals could be falsely incriminated merely because their face print and fingerprints are in the database.

Another issue concerning the database is that there is currently no legislation that would block law enforcement from gaining information from organizations such as Facebook. Although the FBI says that it does not currently share information with such sites, who is to say that they won’t in the near future? The problem with the rapid increase of more sophisticated and accessible facial recognition technology is that it is not regulated. Despite tragedies of police brutality, allowing body cameras to have live stream access to facial recognition technologies is rash if it precedes necessary regulation that would protect an individual’s privacy.

One of the biggest concerns that comes up with allowing police officers to have their body cameras equipped with live stream facial recognition technology is that it robs people of the right they feel they have to be anonymous. Facial recognition technology robs by passively tracking and collecting personal biometric data without a warrant. In the Arizona Law Review, Sabrina Lochner says that under the Fourth Amendment, “law enforcement may take a picture of someone’s face from a lawful vantage point without reasonable suspicion or probable cause; there is no reasonable expectation of privacy as to the face, which is constantly exposed to the public.” However, she goes on to say that running the picture through facial recognition technology is not justifiable without reasonable suspicion. If police were equipped with body cameras that used facial recognition in live time, they would be unjustly collecting information on innocent people. This would destroy anonymity. It would restrict what people will do in public, whether it is good or bad.

The privacy concerns that accompany this decision are valid. However, I personally think that the pros of having officers equipped with facial recognition on cameras outweigh the privacy concerns. In Seattle, police officers are using the technology with their own city-determined rules that include annual audits, restrictions on what officers can use the technology, and required logs on usage. Legislation that strictly defines what government agencies are and are not allowed to do needs to be passed before equipping our police officers with body cameras that use facial recognition technology. In this debate, the answer cannot be merely privacy or security; there needs to be a balance that will allow citizen’s privacy and law enforcement’s means to protect citizens.

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