San Francisco is set to become the first city in the U.S. to ban police officers and other government officials from using facial recognition technology. Concerns about police using facial recognition are well-founded. Absent strong restrictions, police use of facial recognition poses a significant threat to our privacy and could hamper First Amendment-protected protests and other legal activities. Amid such concerns, it makes sense to keep the technology away from law enforcement until adequate policies have been implemented. While San Francisco officials ponder a ban we should consider if there are policies that could allow for police to use facial recognition without putting our civil liberties at risk or if the potential for abuse is so great that it warrants a ban.
“Facial recognition” is a term that applies to a wide range of systems used to confirm identity via automated image analysis. While these systems have been much-discussed recently, facial recognition has been around for decades. Much of the recent focus on facial recognition is a function of its improved accuracy and proliferation.
All over the world private businesses, law enforcement agencies, and national governments are using facial recognition systems. At its best, facial recognition can help improve security at banks and schools, help the blind, and make payments easier. But at its worst it’s an ideal tool for ubiquitous and persistent surveillance. In China, authorities use facial recognition to conduct surveillance and shame jaywalkers. This technology is a crucial part of one of the most extensive, intrusive, and oppressive surveillance apparatus in history, which the Chinese state uses to target the Uyghur Muslim minority in the western Xinjiang province. While there are many differences between the U.S. and China, we should keep in mind that when it comes to the degree of surveillance the differences between China and the U.S. are legal and regulatory rather than technological.
American citizens and residents may enjoy more civil liberties protections than people living in China, but we should nonetheless be concerned about domestic law enforcement use of surveillance technology. After all, law enforcement agencies are already using facial recognition technology, and manufacturers have expressed interest in improving the technology in ways that could put civil liberties at risk.
According to Grand View Research, we should expect law enforcement to spend more on facial recognition. In 2018, the size of the government “facial biometrics” market was $136.9 million and is expected to be $375 million in 2025.
The scale of law enforcement’s current use of facial recognition is larger than many realize. According to Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology half of American adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition network, and at least 26 states allow law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches against driver’s license and other ID photo databases.