Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
A person in the United Kingdom reportedly is the first to be arrested using real-time facial recognition on the streets – a sign that the technology is becoming a viable law enforcement tool. While U.S. law enforcement has been using facial recognition for a while, the roll-out has been secretive, making it difficult to pinpoint where and when it has been used. In 2016, a Georgetown University Center on Privacy & Technology report revealed that U.S. authorities, including the FBI, had compiled facial identification data on more than 117 million Americans, upward of half the adult population.
Facial Recognition on the Streets – Real-Time Arrests Begin in Europe
Behind-the-scenes facial analysis has led quietly to hundreds of arrests in the United Kingdom, but this landmark is the first arrest of a person flagged by on-street surveillance. The 35-year-old woman was arrested for failing to appear in court over an assault charge. This comes after it was announced that police would create a “watchlist” of people who would be detained if identified by the technology on the streets; police have adopted the strategy of setting up facial recognition stations in areas where the suspects are likely to be. Targets – for now – are said to be criminal suspects, people wanted by the courts “or those who pose a risk of harm to themselves or others.”
“The arrest was made by officers who reviewed an alert from Live Facial Recognition technology identifying her as wanted by police,” revealed a spokesperson for London’s Metropolitan Police.
Human rights groups have objected to the new practice as a violation of privacy. However, Met Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave rebutted these arguments, saying, “Locating people who are wanted by the police is not new. Every day police officers are briefed with images of suspects to look out for, resulting in positive identifications and arrests every day. Live facial recognition is about modernising this practice through technology to improve effectiveness and bring more offenders to justice.”
During a trial period in 2019, the system was shown to accurately identify only 19% of the faces on the watchlist. This means that four out of five people were misidentified.
UK Court Rules Facial Tracking on Streets Not a Privacy Violation
Not everyone has welcomed facial recognition on U.K. streets. One major concern is that police will use the technology to trace attendees of protests and other events that may target the government. In 2018, British police did just that, according to Ed Bridges.
The world’s first lawsuit against the use of the technology was brought by the human rights group Liberty on behalf of Bridges, who claimed he was tracked at a peaceful protest against an arms fair while out Christmas shopping. Bridges said, “The van was parked directly opposite this peaceful demonstration – seemingly aimed at discouraging us from lawfully exercising our right to protest.”
“Having police indiscriminately scanning us all as we go about our daily lives makes our privacy rights meaningless. The inevitable result is that people will change their behavior and feel scared to protest or express themselves freely – in short, we’ll be less free.”
Lord Justice Charles Haddon-Cave of the High Court ruled against Liberty, suggesting that existing privacy protections were sufficient and that the use of facial recognition in public was no violation of existing human rights law.
Detroit: A Case Study in Secretive Acquisition of Facial Recognition Tech
U.S. border security openly uses facial recognition to examine foreign entrants into the country; it has not yet dared to force U.S. citizens to submit to the technology – although few Americans realize they have the right to refuse such screenings at the border.
The United States has yet to open up about its current or planned usage of facial recognition technology on citizens. The number of arrests prompted by facial recognition software is unknown, although the ACLU reports that between October 2017 and April 2019, the FBI ran more than 152,000 searches of its face recognition database.
In May 2019, Detroit residents were shocked to discover, again via Georgetown University, that their own police had been using facial recognition to monitor residents for two years. Since Jan. 1, 2016, the city has partnered with local businesses to install high-definition surveillance cameras that transmit to the department, where staff “effectively receive, monitor, and analyze video feeds.” Project Green Light locations are marked with mandatory signage, but locations have expanded from late-night gas stations and liquor stores to 11 churches, eight schools, and sensitive venues, including at least 15 medical centers and 12 pharmacies. Residential locations also participate, including apartment buildings, hotels, and senior living centers. According to the Georgetown report:
“Attending many of these locations reveals deeply personal information about a resident’s ‘religious, political, or social views or activities’ or ‘participation in particular noncriminal organization or lawful event.’ While these activities may occur in public, most of us do not expect to be sharing our attendance at a church service or an addiction treatment center with law enforcement. We do not have to be hiding illegal activity to desire privacy in a choice to worship, seek counseling or treatment, or obtain an abortion or other medical service.”
CCTV surveillance is something most modern city-dwellers accept as normal, but pair that with the department’s $1 million contract to purchase facial recognition software FACE Watch Plus, and you have Detroit residents kicking up a stink.
Willie Burton of the Board of Police Commissioners objected so vociferously to the technology – on the grounds that it provides less-accurate results for people of dark skin – that he was arrested and forcibly removed from a July board meeting. After months of debate and protestations from residents, the board finally decided to allow police to continue using the technology but with restrictions. It can no longer use facial recognition to analyze video footage, to surveil members of the public who are not suspected of a crime, or to use it for predicting crimes.
While police commissioners have made their decision, that may not be the end of the matter. State Representative Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) has drawn up a bill to ban the technology for five years.
While some locales – including California’s San Francisco and Oakland – have instituted pre-emptive bans on the use of facial recognition technology, the reality is that Americans simply have not been consulted on the introduction of this powerful policing tool. In fact, it seems secretive law enforcement departments would prefer that you didn’t even know it is happening.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.