“Most people have no idea that this is happening,” said Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, in testimony at the hearing. “The latest generation of this technology will allow law enforcement to scan the face of every man, woman, and child walking in front of a street surveillance camera… Do you have the right to walk down the street without the government secretly scanning your face? Is it a good idea to give government so much power with so few limits?”The accuracy of the agency’s system is also a matter of debate. According to Chaffetz, roughly one in seven searches of the FBI system returned a list of entirely innocent candidates, even though the actual target was in the database. And the agency doesn’t track its own rate of false positives, according to the Government Accountability Office, which underscores one of the most troubling scenarios for how facial recognition technology could create problems. “It would be one thing if facial-recognition technology were perfect, or near-perfect,” Chaffetz said, “but it clearly is not.”
“An inaccurate system will implicate people for crimes they didn’t commit,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in testimony at the hearing, “and it will shift the burden onto innocent defendants to show that they are not who the system says they are. This threat will disproportionately impact people of color. Face recognition misidentifies African Americans and ethnic minorities at higher rates than whites.”
The F.B.I. insists that its use of facial recognition technology is for investigative leads only, and that a faceprint isn’t so different than a fingerprint—or an in-person line-up for that matter. Facial recognition software is merely an extension of the work that law enforcement already does, said Kimberly Del Greco, the deputy assistant director at the F.B.I.’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division
“It is a search of law enforcement photos by law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes,” she said in the hearing. “Law enforcement has performed photo lineups and manually reviewed mugshots for decades. Face recognition software allows this to be accomplished in an automated manner.”
Not just automated, but automatic—meaning that camera systems outfitted with facial recognition software would identify anyone in the frame. Privacy advocates and members of Congress agree that what happens to this sort of data is a complicated and urgent question. A smart surveillance camera may capture and identify attendees of a political rally, for instance, which could have a chilling effect on civic participation.
Eventually, it may be impossible for people to avoid targeted surveillance. “We might get to a point where you just don’t have the option to opt out,” said Alvaro Hoyos, the chief information security officer at the password and identity management firm OneLogin. “People might not want to think about or talk about it, but we’re going toward a state of constant surveillance.”
Actually, we may already be there.
Data-tracking systems are already able to follow your behavior—online and off—to produce a detailed portrait of you. “Websites do it already, but there’s a perception of the anonymity of being behind your keyboard,” Hoyos told me. And yet, he says, “there’s something about the human image, your image, that is a lot more intimate to us than pretty much anything else. It’s who you are.”