Half of American adults are in a little regulated police face recognition database

In a letter sent Tuesday morning, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, and other civil rights and civil liberties organizations called on the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the potential racial bias in police use of the technology. 

“Face recognition systems are powerful — but they can also be biased,” the letter states. “A growing body of evidence suggests that law enforcement use of face recognition technology is having a disparate impact on communities of color, potentially exacerbating and entrenching existing policing disparities.”

Last week, the ACLU of Northern California revealed that the Baltimore Police Department used face recognition to identify individuals participating in May 2015 protests after the death of Freddie Gray. 

The report spurred calls for oversight from Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. 

“Now, I believe that facial recognition can be a very useful tool in the fight against crime — it can in fact help us catch violent offenders and criminals,” said Franken, who held a 2012 Senate hearing on law enforcement use of face recognition. “But I’m also a firm believer that Americans have a fundamental right to privacy. So I want to ensure that this technology is accurate, transparent, and that our use of facial recognition technology appropriately balances privacy and public safety. The report by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology shows that there are some concerns with how facial recognition technology is being deployed by law enforcement. I will be pressing for answers on how the government uses this technology, and exploring ways we can ensure that law enforcement strikes the right balance.”

“While facial recognition technology can be a valuable tool for catching criminals, it comes with risks to individual privacy,” said Chaffetz, who recently wrote the FBI to inquire about its use of the technology. “Safeguards must be in place to ensure its accuracy and to identify and eliminate any potential bias or deficiencies. The technology must be used in a manner consistent with our Constitutional right of protection against unwarranted government searches. Continued legislative oversight is needed to ensure proper use of this powerful emerging technology. I applaud the good work that went into preparing this significant report.”

The report proposes reforms to transform face recognition from a threat to Americans’ constitutional rights into a positive tool that can be used for high-stakes law enforcement. Among many recommendations, the report urges Congress and state legislatures to pass commonsense laws to regulate law enforcement face recognition, and recommends that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division evaluate the disparate impact of police face recognition.

“This report represents a major step in how we think about the use of face recognition technology and how it is regulated,” said Dean William M. Treanor. “This yearlong effort once again highlights the critical need to have lawyers who understand technology and are well trained in the various aspects of cyber law. Georgetown Law will continue to take a leadership role in educating our lawyers on technology policy, privacy, and criminal justice.” 

— Read more in Clare Garvie et al., The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America (Georgetown Law, Center on Privacy & Technology, 18 October 2016)