News Brief

New U.S. Report Warns of Facial Recognition Dangers

A comprehensive new report by a nonpartisan and independent U.S. watchdog which investigates government corruption and abuse of power warns of the dangers of facial recognition surveillance and says its application should be limited to emergency situations only.

As personal information belonging to hundreds of millions of Americans is swept up by private companies as well as by government agencies, the Project on Government Oversight report highlights that local, state and federal governments are collecting facial imagery, DNA, retinal images and fingerprint scans on an unprecedented scale.

According to “Facing the Future of Surveillance”, half of all adults in the United States already have pre-identified photos in databases which can be searched by one in four state or local police departments for facial recognition searches. Increasingly, the same agencies are also acquiring the technology to use facial recognition for surveillance programs.

One of the greatest risks arising from the mass deployment of cameras in the U.S. comes from the fact that more than half of the country’s big city police departments already use body cameras. There is a danger that data gathered from these devices could be used for profiling, law enforcement investigations and even background checks.

Law enforcement officers would have the ability to scan crowds during protests, political events or religious ceremonies and pull out any individual with an active arrest warrant. These threats to civil liberties are further amplified by the fact that some facial recognition systems are designed to end searches at the “closest” face match, rather than returning no match at all.

POGO’s report ends with several stark recommendations, including placing limits on facial recognition surveillance to instances where only serious crimes have been committed. The authors also propose a moratorium on real-time facial recognition in body cameras.

As the authors explain, “… there are practically no laws limiting facial recognition surveillance. It’s time for that to change.”