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Facial recognition tools in law enforcement: Is Big Brother watching you?

Most of us are familiar with facial recognition software from TV shows and movies. Investigators use computers to swiftly locate suspects and solve crimes – all with the touch of a button.

Yet here’s a startling fact few of us realize: Facial recognition software isn’t purely fictional. The FBI has been using it for years. So, too, are a growing number of state and local law enforcement agencies.

An in-depth study by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology raises important questions about how facial recognition systems impact privacy, individual rights and government power.

How it goes much further than fingerprint screening or DNA matching

Historically, law enforcement agencies have turned to biometric data (fingerprints and DNA records) from databases of those who have been arrested or under criminal investigation. These databases are limited in scope. They allow for correct identification in a highly precise manner. Fingerprint matching and DNA testing have accuracy rates of well over 99 percent.

Facial recognition matching, by contrast, is of questionable accuracy. These technologies rely on algorithms and probability to pinpoint similarities. Because there are currently no standardized measures or testing, their success rates are unproven.

What’s more, unlike traditional biometric databases, facial recognition networks extend far beyond the criminal justice system. The software pulls from vast databases of driver’s licenses and photo IDs. The result: One in two Americans can be identified through this software.

Half of all Americans appear in at least one facial recognition network.

Big Brother may be watching us around the clock

Perhaps the most alarming feature of facial recognition software is its ability to monitor everyday people through real-time surveillance. At least some law enforcement agencies use street cameras to track people through facial recognition, and a few are considering installing the software on patrol cars with cameras. As a result, ordinary citizens could conceivably become subject to round-the-clock surveillance.

“Real-time face recognition will redefine the nature of public spaces.” – Georgetown Law study

Although these tools are useful in certain contexts, without proper controls, facial recognition systems could easily open the floodgates to intrusive government surveillance. Only a handful of law enforcement agencies have systems in place for logging and auditing searches to prevent abuses. Real-time surveillance measures could easily get out of hand.

Law and order are necessary for a safe society – but so, too, are freedom and privacy.