December 22, 2016 12:52PM

Don’t Worsen Surveillance in Quest to Increase Police Accountability

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The laudable goal of increasing accountability in law enforcement could lead to increased surveillance. Perhaps nothing illustrates this danger better than the merger of body camera and facial recognition technology, something some body camera manufactures have already achieved. Strict policies on facial recognition being used on body camera data are not in place at any of the major police departments that either are or soon will be equipping officers with the cameras. This is especially concerning at a time when body cameras are very popular with the American public. But, with restrictions in place, it is possible to increase police accountability while protecting privacy.

The risks of using facial recognition technology with body cameras was recently outlined by Constitution Project privacy fellow Jake Laperruque at Cato’s recent surveillance conference. You can watch his presentation here.

Laperruque rightly points out some of the most concerning issues associated with facial recognition and body cameras. Police body cameras with facial recognition could be prone to misuse. While this technology could be used to identify violent suspects it’s worth considering that it may also be used to identify those who have outstanding warrants for petty crimes.

There is also the possibility of police using the fusion of body camera and facial recognition technology in order to track people. As Laperruque correctly highlights, mobile police with body cameras could allow for surveillance far more intrusive than the stationary CCTV cameras that are ubiquitous in many cities.

Some may argue that if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide. But, as Laperruque reminds us, even those taking part in First Amendment protected activities, such as taking part in a protest or attending a mosque, could be identified via body camera, thereby prompting some kind of chilling effect.

Pew found that a similar chilling effect affected some Americans who changed their online habits in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. One survey respondent said, “I don’t search some things that I might have before,” and another remarked, “I used to be more open to discussing my private life online with my select friends. Now I don’t know who might be listening.” It’s reasonable to think that similar sentiments will accompany the proliferation of facial recognition‐​equipped police body cameras on display at protests and religious gatherings.

These concerns shouldn’t prompt lawmakers to ban facial recognition software being used on body cameras. Good policies can allow for police to use facial recognition software during emergencies. As Laperruque points out, exigent circumstance exceptions to the Fourth Amendment already exist and can be applied to police using facial recognition technology to analyze body camera footage. 

Laperruque suggests limiting facial recognition to investigations into serious offenses and requiring judicial authorization before police use facial recognition to track or identify someone. This will prevent police officers from indiscriminately scouring body camera footage with facial recognition technology in order to build profiles of citizens engaged in legal activity. 

When considering body cameras we should keep in mind that they can be used as platforms for surveillance technologies. As criminal justice reformers continue to call for the deployment of police body cameras they should remember that body cameras without appropriate policies in place could be used as tools for surveillance rather than increased accountability. Fortunately, as Laperruque shows, policies can be implemented to mitigate this risk.