Roughly Half of American Adults Are in Facial Recognition Systems Used by Police

Roughly half of American adults are in facial recognition systems used by police—and African Americans are more likely to be targeted.

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Roughly half of American adults are in facial recognition systems used by police—and African Americans are more likely to be targeted, according to a new report from the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University’s law school.

The 150-page report released today, titled, "The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition In America," is the result of a year-long investigation. According to the group, "it is the most comprehensive survey to date of law enforcement face recognition and the risks that it poses to privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights."

It found that over 117 million American adults (roughly half) are included in law enforcement face recognition networks that use driver licenses and other identification photos—even if they've never been suspected of a crime.

According to the Miami Herald, Alvaro Bedoya, a co-author of the report, explained, "Innocent people don't belong in criminal databases." In the past, people would have to come down to the police station to stand in a line-up—but not anymore. Bedoya argued that "police and the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual lineup." He continued, "This has never been done for fingerprints or DNA. It’s uncharted and frankly dangerous territory."

Although some police departments claim that the facial recognition system "does not see race," the report found that not only is face recognition less accurate for black people, but the databases that use mug shots include a disproportionate number of African Americans "due to disproportionately high arrest rates."

Roughly 25 percent of state and local police departments can use face recognition systems, according to the Miami Herald. The report says, "No state has passed a law comprehensively regulating police face recognition." Furthermore, the researchers "are not aware of any agency that requires warrants for searches or limits them to serious crimes."

In a letter signed by a coalition of 52 organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that "law enforcement use of face recognition technology is having a disparate impact on communities of color, potentially exacerbating and entrenching existing policing disparities." The letter argues that "the FBI is leading by bad example, and many jurisdictions are following." Their reasoning is that "the FBI has yet to conduct even one audit of its own face recognition systems, and continues to disclaim responsibility for assessing the accuracy of the partner state and federal systems that it uses on a daily basis."

Both the ACLU and the report agree that face recognition programs can be helpful, but the ACLU is concerned because "the safeguards to ensure this technology is being used fairly and responsibly appear to be virtually nonexistent."

The report argues that "Congress and state legislatures should pass commonsense laws to regulate law enforcement face recognition." It also recommends requiring "clear legislative approval" before allowing police to run face recognition searches, and often suggests the systems should be further tested for accuracy.

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