The Future of Face-Recognition Technology

Face it: the future is already here. And by default, your face is ever more likely to be found in a law-enforcement database. It’s as easy as getting a driver’s license.

The facts are that face recognition is neither new nor rare, and more than one out of two American adults have already been loaded into a local, state, or federal database.

That’s according to this report by the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center. Read it to learn more about this technology; how it’s being used; and what the future holds. For three shorter stories about it, see here, here, and here.

What did the researchers do? They sent public-records requests to more than one hundred law-enforcement agencies across the country. They interviewed representatives from dozens of those agencies as well as from the technology companies they contract with. They made two site visits to agencies that use advanced face-recognition systems. And they surveyed the state of the law (or lack thereof) in all fifty states.

What are their takeaways? Here are four.

  1. The technology has value, and its use is inevitable. The report doesn’t aim to stop it.
  2. Its use is spreading rapidly and secretly without limits, standards, or public oversight.
  3. The total network of federal, state, and local databases includes over 117 million American adults. That’s more than half the country.
  4. We’re moving toward a world of continuous, real-time face recognition through public surveillance cameras.

What are their recommendations? Here are three.

  1. Congress and state legislatures should pass commonsense laws to regulate face recognition, and police should follow them before they run a search.
    • For example, to search a database of driver’s license or state identification photos, police should have a warrant backed by probable cause.
    • To search a database of mug shots, they should have a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. Periodically, they should scrub the database of people who were arrested but not charged and convicted. Michigan, for one, already requires that.
    • They should not use real-time, continuous surveillance except for public emergencies.
    • They should not track people based on politics, religion, or other protected status.
  2. The federal government should develop tests and best practices to improve the technology’s accuracy. For example, in the latest available test of the FBI’s database, the system included the right person on a list of fifty potential matches 86% of the time. That means that one out of seven searches returned a list of fifty innocent look-alikes, and the other six included 49 of them.
  3. All governments should report their use of the technology, audit such use regularly, and respect civil rights and liberties.

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