The ACLU and other groups asked the Justice Department to investigate police departments' use of facial recognition technology.
The ACLU and other groups asked the Justice Department to investigate police departments' use of facial recognition technology.

The broadening and unfettered use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement threatens the Fourth Amendment and other rights – particularly those of people of color – 50 rights, faith and privacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the Justice Department in a letter pushing for an investigation into the use and impact of the technology.

“Facial recognition technology let's police identify you from far away and in secret,” Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, said on a press call about the findings of the center's yearlong study on the use and potential abuses of the technology. “One in two American adults are in a law enforcement facial recognition network.”

Unlike populating a fingerprint database, which is done with the full knowledge of an individual, capturing faces can be done on the Q.T. without a subject's knowledge. Just “standing for a driver's license” can land a citizen in a biometric database, Bedoya said, noting that many such databases are “populated by law-abiding citizens.”

After gathering the results of 90 responses to 106 Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests to police departments across the country, researchers found not only that use of the “powerful” technology has grown more sophisticated, allowing for facial scans in real time, it's also “not neutral,” Bedoya said. “African Americans may be enrolled at rates 3-4 times” and the technology's shortcomings may result in it being the “least accurate for the population it's most used on.”

Also troubling, “facial recognition technology is not under control,” said The Center on Privacy & Technology's Clare Garvey. Currently no law on the books regulates its use. Instead, control is left up to the police departments and agencies using it – and many of them apply it without reasonable suspicion.

Rights organizations are concerned that facial recognition will “individuals act in public spaces,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani told reporters. 

“It could chill speech” when those engaging publicly in First Amendment actions are being scanned into law enforcement networks, she said. And, “police are free to identify and track anyone,” which “fundamentally undercuts the belief that we have” that we can walk around anonymously.

Those concerns prompted the petition to the Justice Department. “We need to stop the widespread use of face recognition technology by police until meaningful safeguards are in place,” the ACLU counsel said in a release. “Half of all adults in the country are in government face recognition databases, yet the vast majority of law enforcement agencies using this technology lack clear policies, audits to ensure accuracy, and transparency.”