Do you have any traffic tickets you neglected to pay? You know, the kind that eventually turn into bench warrants and cause you to be super careful when you drive, lest you get pulled over for yet another minor infraction and end up handcuffed in the back of a squad car, on your way to spend a few hours in the local hoosegow until your significant other shows up with bail? If so, don’t worry. As long as you manage to not get pulled over, you’re still reasonably safe. But the time is rapidly coming when just walking down the street minding your own business might cause a squad car to be dispatched to pick you up to make sure you pay your fine, thanks to our old buddy, facial recognition.
I know this is old news and it seems like implementation of the technology in such manner is years away — but I think it’s coming quicker than we think. Some may even think this to be no big deal. After all, what’s wrong with the fuzz having the ability to pick lawbreakers out of downtown pedestrian traffic or while on a jaunt across the parking lot to Office Depot at a local strip mall? Wouldn’t that include the ability to get dangerous violent criminals off the street?
Well, yes. But this old hippie still doesn’t like it. During my life I’ve seen too many instances where the police overzealously abuse a new technology they’ve embraced. Think tasers or pepper spray — or swat teams for that matter. Do a Google to get an idea of how many unarmed citizens have been dispatched to their graves through the wrongful use of tasers or pepper spray — although the investigation of these incidents rarely find fault with the officer who did the dispatching.
Already many police departments have cameras on their cars which scan license tags, both of parked cars and vehicles in traffic, in the hope of accidentally finding a car owned by someone who’s on the lam. In the few short years that these readers have been in use, they’ve already bein misused. For example, in some jurisdictions cops have been known to scan tags outside of bars, then later look for these autos on the road for potential DUIs. This may sound good, until you consider the fact that having been parked in the vicinity of a bar doesn’t give probable cause to pull a driver over for being intoxicated. I park near bars all the time, and I haven’t touched alcohol since 1997.
Similar misuse is a certainty with facial recognition.
The day is rapidly approaching when every city in the U.S. will be like London is now, with surveillance cameras connected to a grid covering every cubic inch of the city, not dissimilar to what we see weekly on “Person of Interest”. Already, in London, computers connected to these cameras can detect “suspicious behavior”. Add facial recognition technology to that and it really will be like “Person of Interest”, especially in a nation that’s convinced that terrorists are hiding around every corner. The technology is sure to be abused, as law enforcement has never found a technology they didn’t overuse.
As an old hippie, I have a strong aversion to Big Brother, even though my lifestyle (alas) is about as squeaky clean as the Pope’s. Thankfully, I’m not alone in seeing danger lurking in the use of this tech. In an article published today on Ars Technica, attorney Jennifer Lynch at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says, “Facial recognition performs poorly under many of the conditions where law enforcement wants to use it—for example, trying to identify people on the street or captured on surveillance cameras. Even the FBI’s new facial recognition system, NGI, only guarantees accuracy 85 percent of the time. It is also unnecessary when compared to fingerprints, which have proved to be a highly effective form of identification.”
Dollars to doughnuts, that 85 percent figure will be up to well over 90 percent within a year or two. And the potential for abuse is clearly present. “From the perspective of a civil liberties advocate, the wide deployments that can identify individuals at a distance, is that this changes completely the dynamic of privacy in public,” the Ars article quotes Harley Geiger with the Center for Democracy and Technology as saying. “In the US we have this idea of reasonable expectation of privacy which allows for some unreasonable searches. It allows for tracking at a broad scale. It’s not just something that will identify criminals or suspects, it will be used to identify people with no relation to crime or wrongdoing.”
I have no doubt that’s true.
These are scary times in which we live. Not only do we have to worry about attacks by muggers and thieves, we also have to worry, perhaps moreso, about our much better equipted police.