San Francisco Is Right: Facial Recognition Must Be Put On Hold

Good analysis by Manjoo:

What are we going to do about all the cameras? The question keeps me up at night, in something like terror.

Cameras are the defining technological advance of our age. They are the keys to our smartphones, the eyes of tomorrow’s autonomous drones and the FOMO engines that drive Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Pornhub. Cheap, ubiquitous, viral photography has fed social movements like Black Lives Matter, but cameras are already prompting more problems than we know what to do with — revenge porn, live-streamed terrorism, YouTube reactionaries and other photographic ills.

And cameras aren’t done. They keep getting cheaper and — in ways both amazing and alarming — they are getting smarter. Advances in computer vision are giving machines the ability to distinguish and track faces, to make guesses about people’s behaviors and intentions, and to comprehend and navigate threats in the physical environment. In China, smart cameras sit at the foundation of an all-encompassing surveillance totalitarianism unprecedented in human history. In the West, intelligent cameras are now being sold as cheap solutions to nearly every private and public woe, from catching cheating spouses and package thieves to preventing school shootings and immigration violations. I suspect these and more uses will take off, because in my years of covering tech, I’ve gleaned one ironclad axiom about society: If you put a camera in it, it will sell.

That’s why I worry that we’re stumbling dumbly into a surveillance state. And it’s why I think the only reasonable thing to do about smart cameras now is to put a stop to them.

This week, San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by the city’s police and other agencies. Oakland and Berkeley are also considering bans, as is the city of Somerville, Mass. I’m hoping for a cascade. States, cities and the federal government should impose an immediate moratorium on facial recognition, especially its use by law-enforcement agencies. We might still decide, at a later time, to give ourselves over to cameras everywhere. But let’s not jump into an all-seeing future without understanding the risks at hand.

What are the risks? Two new reports by Clare Garvie, a researcher who studies facial recognition at Georgetown Law, brought the dangers home for me. In one report — written with Laura Moy, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology — Ms. Garvie uncovered municipal contracts indicating that law enforcement agencies in Chicago, Detroit and several other cities are moving quickly, and with little public notice, to install Chinese-style “real time” facial recognition systems.

In Detroit, the researchers discovered that the city signed a $1 million deal with DataWorks Plus, a facial recognition vendor, for software that allows for continuous screening of hundreds of private and public cameras set up around the city — in gas stations, fast-food restaurants, churches, hotels, clinics, addiction treatment centers, affordable-housing apartments and schools. Faces caught by the cameras can be searched against Michigan’s driver’s license photo database. Researchers also obtained the Detroit Police Department’s rules governing how officers can use the system. The rules are broad, allowing police to scan faces “on live or recorded video” for a wide variety of reasons, including to “investigate and/or corroborate tips and leads.” In a letter to Ms. Garvie, James E. Craig, Detroit’s police chief, disputed any “Orwellian activities,” adding that he took “great umbrage” at the suggestion that the police would “violate the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

I’m less optimistic, and so is Ms. Garvie. “Face recognition gives law enforcement a unique ability that they’ve never had before,” Ms. Garvie told me. “That’s the ability to conduct biometric surveillance — the ability to see not just what is happening on the ground but who is doing it. This has never been possible before. We’ve never been able to take mass fingerprint scans of a group of people in secret. We’ve never been able to do that with DNA. Now we can with face scans.”

That ability alters how we should think about privacy in public spaces. It has chilling implications for speech and assembly protected by the First Amendment; it means that the police can watch who participates in protests against the police and keep tabs on them afterward.

In fact, this is already happening. In 2015, when protests erupted in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the Baltimore County Police Department used facial recognition softwareto find people in the crowd who had outstanding warrants — arresting them immediately, in the name of public safety.

Eyes On Detroit

Detroit’s facial recognition operation taps into high-definition cameras set up around the city under a program called Project Green Light Detroit. Participating businesses send the Detroit Police Department a live feed from their indoor and outdoor cameras. In exchange, they receive “special police attention,” according to the initiative’s website.

Source: Detroit Police Department; Open Street Map | By The New York Times

But there’s another wrinkle in the debate over facial recognition. In a second report, Ms. Garvie found that for all their alleged power, face-scanning systems are being used by the police in a rushed, sloppy way that should call into question their results.

Here’s one of the many crazy stories in Ms. Garvie’s report: In the spring of 2017, a man was caught on a security camera stealing beer from a CVS store in New York. But the camera didn’t get a good shot of the man, and the city’s face-scanning system returned no match.

The police, however, were undeterred. A detective in the New York Police Department’s facial recognition department thought the man in the pixelated CVS video looked like the actor Woody Harrelson. So the detective went to Google Images, got a picture of the actor and ran hisface through the face scanner. That produced a match, and the law made its move. A man was arrested for the crime not because he looked like the guy caught on tape but because Woody Harrelson did.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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