The per­ma­nent po­lice line-up

Safe­guards are needed against fa­cial-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy that scru­ti­nizes mil­lions

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

Most Amer­i­cans haven’t sam­pled the thrill of be­ing the sub­ject of a po­lice line-up, where the vic­tim of a crime stud­ies the faces of sus­pects from be­hind a one-way mir­ror. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy changes all that. While the po­lice need ev­ery ad­van­tage they can man­age to stay ahead of evil­do­ers, strong safe­guards are nec­es­sary to pro­tect in­di­vid­ual pri­vacy and pre­vent false ac­cu­sa­tions and ar­rests.

The House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee ex­am­ined po­lice poli­cies on the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy and dis­cov­ered that “mugshots,” or pho­to­graphs of the faces of sus­pects, of 125 mil­lion Amer­i­can adults are stored in dig­i­tal data­bases and are al­ready at the call of state and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties. The FBI has made ar­range­ments with 18 states to ac­cess their dig­i­tal pho­to­graphs, in­clud­ing those col­lected by state de­part­ments of motor ve­hi­cles. The bureau is seek­ing ac­cess to the oth­ers.

Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz, the chair­man of the com­mit­tee, ob­served that the FBI has not pub­lished the re­quired pri­vacy im­pact as­sess­ments of its use of its elec­tronic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams. “So here’s the prob­lem,” he told the FBI, “you’re re­quired by law to put out a pri­vacy state­ment and you didn’t. And now we’re sup­posed to trust you with hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple’s faces . . . . Why should we trust you?” It was a per­ti­nent ques­tion in the wake of al­le­ga­tions of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and sus­pi­cions of U.S. sur­veil­lance of the Trump tran­si­tion team. The dan­gers in­her­ent in fed­eral cy­ber-ac­cess to the per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions of Amer­i­cans are real.

Kim­berly J. Del Greco, the deputy as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the FBI, told the com­mit­tee that the tardy pri­vacy as­sess­ments have now been for­warded to the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment. Mean­while, she said, the agency’s In­ter­state Photo Sys­tem and other fa­cial recog­ni­tion pro­grams are used “only to cre­ate leads, and not in­tended as pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

Pri­vacy ad­vo­cates ob­ject to the whole­sale in­clu­sion of the data on the law-abid­ing in fa­cial recog­ni­tion net­works that are used to iden­tify crim­i­nals. “Never be­fore — not with fin­ger­prints or DNA — has law en­force­ment cre­ated a na­tional bio­met­ric net­work made up mostly of in­no­cent peo­ple,” says Al­varo Be­doya, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter on Pri­vacy and Tech­nol­ogy at Georgetown Law School.

The tech­nol­ogy is still evolv­ing, and crit­ics say it is sub­ject to mak­ing false matches. FBI pro­grams fail to make an ac­cu­rate iden­ti­fi­ca­tion 15 per­cent of the time, says Jen­nifer Lynch of the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion. Fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is par­tic­u­larly un­re­li­able in cor­rectly iden­ti­fy­ing blacks and other eth­nic mi­nori­ties of darker hue, mean­ing “peo­ple of color will likely shoul­der more of the bur­den of the In­ter­state Photo Sys­tem’s in­ac­cu­ra­cies than whites.”

As iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy im­proves, it’s nat­u­ral for law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to rely on it to help keep the peace. But for now the ur­gency to iden­tify sus­pects out­paces ac­cu­racy. The sort of de­ceit­ful un­mask­ing that led to Gen. Michael Flynn’s ter­mi­na­tion as the pres­i­dent’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser may seem a present dan­ger only for the high and mighty, but every­one with a driver’s li­cense could even­tu­ally fall un­der the gaze of Big Brother.

If the U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies use fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy ca­pa­ble of plac­ing Amer­i­cans in a per­pet­ual lineup, Congress is ob­li­gated to de­vise strin­gent safe­guards and im­pose tough pun­ish­ment for those who vi­o­late those safe­guards. The late Supreme Court Jus­tice Louis Bran­deis rightly de­scribed pri­vacy as “the right to be let alone.” That right has never been more pre­cious, or more vul­ner­a­ble to abuse.

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