In 2016, a Georgetown University report revealed that half of all American adults are logged in a government face recognition database. Though a government official may not be actually watching our movements in real-time, the fact that your movements, actions, and even facial expressions are being logged and stored in an Orwellian database for potential future use should be sounding alarm bells for all liberty-minded folk. What does this mean for Americans’ right to privacy?
It is unknown how many adults are in the database currently, but it is likely that the number has grown since 2016. The use of this technology is troubling because it provides yet another way for the state to surveil its citizens. But while we have come almost to expect that our government is surveilling us, what are the implications of private citizens using and accessing this technology? When companies and celebrities begin compiling individuals in their own databases, we have to ask if it has become far too invasive.
Taylor Swift Controversy
Rolling Stone has reported that popular singer Taylor Swift used facial recognition technology during her most recent tour to detect stalkers who could have been in the audience. Her security team hid the facial-recognition device in a kiosk that outwardly showed clips of her May 18 concert at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA.
As the fans looked at the screen, the device took pictures of their faces and sent them to a “command post” in Nashville, Tennessee. Then, the faces were cross-referenced with a database of people who were previously known to have stalked the singer.
Unsurprisingly, this created a backlash, with some questioning whether or not the singer’s actions were justified. Certainly, it is important that Swift protect herself, but does this mean that she has the right to violate the privacy of her fans? Moreover, what impact will this technology have when the government ramps up their efforts, and what access will private entities have to our information?
Government Never Forgets a Face
The Georgetown report, conducted by the university’s law school, revealed that more than 117 million people were in the government’s face recognition network in 2016. It also showed that one in four law enforcement agencies have access to the database and that their activities are mostly unregulated.
“…the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual line-up,”
According to Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, indicated that this database was compiled by collecting data from 26 states. “By using face recognition to scan the faces on 26 states’ driver’s license and ID photos, police and the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual line-up,” he said.
Bedoya also pointed out that this form of data collection has never been performed for other, more established forms of identification evidence, including DNA and fingerprints.
That’s right. The federal government added the faces of innocent people to a database without their knowledge. It is an action that one would expect to see in dystopian films or television programs. The fact that there are no laws regulating law enforcement’s use of this technology only adds to the concern over the state’s potential violation of privacy rights.
The report indicates that of the 52 agencies that use the technology, only one sought legislative approval. Many of them did not even require a law enforcement officer to have probable cause before using facial recognition to identify an individual. Put simply, the potential for abuse is staggering.
A Precursor to Tyranny?
As with many examples of government overreach, the use of facial recognition technology is being presented as a positive development, one that will aid law enforcement in ensuring the safety of its citizens. Indeed, during the May 2015 protests sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Police Department used the software to identify people who participated in riots.
Still, for those who value the rights protected by the Constitution, the idea that the state could store your face in a database and use the technology to identify you is terrifying. While some might contend that if you’re not breaking the law, you have nothing to fear, others understand that our God-given rights are sacrosanct.
Those willing to accept this intrusion are not considering what could happen if the government were to become tyrannical. The fact that the government has not put any real accountability measures in place surrounding the technology makes it more likely that state officials will abuse their power. We have already seen that some far-left activists who happen to be working for the government have no problem using state resources to target private citizens. If there is no oversight, what will happen when these individuals have the power of facial recognition technology?