Police Use of Facial Recognition Technology Must Be Stopped

As our society continues to reckon with the police state we have created for ourselves and ask long overdue questions about the proper role of police in that society, technology continues to pose new threats to civil liberty.

Concerns about an Orwellian Big Brother surveillance state have long existed, but it is only in recent years as rapid advances in technology occurred that such government oversight became a cost-effective reality. Algorithms that allow word recognition and searching of audio surveillance, the ease of intercepting cell phone data and tracking people via the GPS transmitters we all carry around in our pocket, and most recently, the incredible advancements in facial recognition software coupled with the vast amount of raw data people freely share on social media have made the once hypothetical situation in which the government can easily track the movement and communication of its citizens a clear and present danger.

Anaheim recently announced that its police department has completed an 18-month pilot program and would be entering in an annual contract for facial recognition technology. Why is this something we should all be deeply concerned with?

First, the technology is actually not as good as many of the companies selling it claim it to be. Detroit, which contracts with Data Woks Plus for its facial recognition technology, recently saw its Police Chief admit that the software misidentifies people about 96 percent of the time!

Additionally, there have long been concerns that such technology would disproportionately impact people of color. In fact, the error rates are higher for people of color and women. Moreover, surveillance by the police occurs at disproportionately higher rates in neighborhoods with large minority populations. In Detroit, the technology was used almost exclusively on black people (68 out of 70 times this year). “This means that people who may have had nothing to do with a crime are ultimately questioned and investigated by police. In Detroit, this means, almost exclusively, Black people.” Recently, in what appears to be the first documented false arrest based on the technology a man was arrested in front of his wife and children and thrown into jail for a crime he had nothing to do with.

Public sentiment against facial recognition technology does appear to be gathering steam. In June, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft all announced either temporary or permanent bands on sales of their facial recognition technologies to police departments. Boston joined San Francisco, becoming the second largest city in the country to ban most police use of facial recognition technology. Two Democrats in Senate introduced legislation to ban use of the technology by federal law enforcement agencies.

These developments are not coincidence. They are a direct result of the increased activism centered around police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. People are waking up and telling the government and private industry that there are limits to the incursion on their privacy and personal liberty that they will accept in the name of “law and order.” We must not let this moment pass, we must remain vigilant.

P.S. If you’re still not convinced, as always, listen to John Oliver.