Facial Recognition Is Law Enforcement’s Newest Weapon Against Protesters
Police in Seattle, Austin, and Dallas, as well as the FBI have asked for images of violence and protests
As protests engulf the country following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, law enforcement agencies with extensive facial recognition capabilities are now asking the public for footage of activists.
“Hopefully, we can pick her image up. If we can, we can do facial recognition, hopefully, and you know then we’d [sic] able to shed some more light on that,” police commissioner Thomas Carter of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said in a virtual press conference, referring to a woman who allegedly smashed a police car window and punched an officer.
Because there are no federal or state laws that require transparency for government use of facial recognition technology, there’s no way to know how the technology is being used
Facial recognition is now a key investigative tool for police departments across the United States, with nearly every major city and many smaller towns now capable of searching for a person’s identity with nothing more than a picture of their face.
For those attending protests, there’s an immediate concern: How likely is it that images of will be run through facial recognition software?
Law enforcement officials widely maintain that facial recognition is just one of many tools used to solve crimes. But because there are no federal or state laws that require transparency for government use of facial recognition technology, there’s no way to know how the technology is being used or which law enforcement departments have access to it.
The facial recognition systems most commonly sold to local law enforcement compare a face to photos in an existing database held by the police, typically consisting of mugshots.
A slew of companies offers police the capabilities to identify and match mugshots to captured imagery. State law enforcement in Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have bought such facial recognition from a company called Dataworks Plus. According to documents obtained by OneZero, Dataworks Plus also works with cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Sacramento.
The Japanese electronics company NEC claims that a third of U.S. law enforcement use its products, including fingerprint and facial recognition technology. It has contracts in more than 20 states, according to documents obtained by OneZero.
These capabilities allow law enforcement to find the identity of anyone who has had mugshots taken and stored, or had been previously incarcerated, against photos in police databases.
In some states, like Florida, police can search against drivers license photos, according to the Georgetown Center for Privacy and Technology. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department in Florida runs 8,000 facial recognition searches per month against the database of 7 million drivers in Florida, according to Georgetown’s Perpetual Lineup project.
Hundreds of state and local police departments in the United States also have access to Clearview AI, according to BuzzFeed News, allowing them to run facial recognition searches against billions of photos scraped from social media. It’s unknown exactly how many people are in Clearview AI’s database, and little is known about how it operates. There has never been an independently verified audit of its accuracy, for example.
Clearview AI’s software has been used hundreds of times by law enforcement officers in the Minneapolis area as of February, according to documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News. The Minneapolis Police Department, Hennepin Sheriff’s Department (whose jurisdiction includes Minneapolis), and the Minnesota Fusion Center (which analyses law enforcement data for the state) all have access to the company’s technology.
Federal agencies have also been called to assist in the surveillance of protesters.
Chad Wolf, the acting department of homeland security secretary, said Saturday that CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be deployed to help state and local enforcement across the country with surveillance, according to CBS News.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if those technologies were used on those crowdsourced contributions.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and ICE, manages one of the country’s largest facial recognition databases, called IDENT. It houses the identities of more than 250 million people, taken from international airport arrivals and other border crossings. The DHS is working to be able to access more than 300 million additional people’s identities held by other federal agencies, though it can already access many of those by formally partnering with the agencies on an investigation.
The DHS did not respond to questions about what kind of surveillance assistance it was offering to state or local governments.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is also being deployed in Denver to arrest violent protesters, according to CBS Denver. The FBI has access to a facial recognition database of more than 640 million images and is being sued by the ACLU for documents detailing how the technology is used.
Real-world tests of facial recognition technology have shown flawed results. In a trial of NEC’s real-time facial recognition in London, an independent analysis found that 81% of 42 people flagged by the algorithm were not actually on a watchlist.
Face masks only help protect the identities of protests to a point. Facial recognition companies have begun to make facial recognition that can identify people wearing a mask. While the technology was initially marketed by companies like Rank One Computing for identifying those in masks at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the technology was widely distributed and could be used for other means.
While there’s no way to know what technology is being used by law enforcement as it happens, privacy experts are warning that police have access to the technology and are likely using it on footage either collected from social media or submitted by the public.
“If government agencies are stockpiling large repositories of film, in light of what’s going on with widely available facial recognition technology, I wouldn’t be surprised if those technologies were used on those crowdsourced contributions,” Nikhil Ramnaney, president of L.A.’s public defender union, told the Los Angeles Times.