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Facial Recognition is Making Its Way from the Battlefield to the Streets

Facial Recognition is Making Its Way from the Battlefield to the Streets

The United States military develops and has access to some of the most advanced technology in the world, which it applies to the battlefield to make military operations safer, more efficient and more effective.

With tools like drones, facial recognition software, advanced navigational systems and more, the military has made itself into a formidable target. Some technology, such as drones, is already a controversial subject in military hands, and disturbingly, more and more of it is making its way into the ranks of civilian police forces, raising uncomfortable questions about civil rights and the direction of American democracy.

Law enforcement agencies argue that these technologies increase their abilities to perform their jobs safely and efficiently, but the nature of policing in the United States is also changing. Historically, the primary goal of most domestic law enforcement agencies was one of public safety, with a focus on keeping members of the public safe, addressing crime issues and providing community assistance.

Today, many such agencies are heavily involved in anti-terrorism activities, and policing has become a slightly different creature. Writing for Der Spiegel, Dirk Kurbjuweit argues that the United States has become a nation consumed by paranoia, and nowhere is this reflected more clearly than in law enforcement services. Police forces of all shapes and sizes receive funding and assistance from agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to enact anti-terrorism campaigns and programs, for example, while community policing and similar services are cut. The focus on terrorism has changed attitudes in police departments and law enforcement agencies, normalizing the use of military equipment.

In San Diego, police officers have begun rolling out the use of facial recognition software. They say the software helps them quickly identify people they encounter during routine calls, but it does more than that: it pulls up all data associated with a given individual, including prior criminal history, address and other personal details. Officers can use the system without making a formal stop, requesting identification, or explaining why, which some people would argue constitutes a civil rights violation. Effectively, officers can perform a search without notice, warrant, or warning, on anyone, at any time.

This information is also retained in officers’ individual computer tablets unless they remember to delete it, which could lead to a major security breach. As occurred with the Transportation Safety Administration and screening technologies, the system is only as strong as the weakest human link, and such technology creates numerous opportunities for intentional or accidental leaks of data, personal information and more. Such biometric technologies also raise concerns about the possibility of creating government databases that track all residents and citizens of the country, limiting privacy substantially.

The police argue that those with nothing to hide don’t need to worry about the technology and linked database, a common response to security and civil rights concerns. Yet, as has been proved with other rollouts of biometrics and related technologies, even those with nothing to hide have something to worry about: their privacy. The more information government databases compile about people and make available through mobile networks like this one, the more people risk having information exposed without their consent — imagine such databases in the hands of identity thieves, for example, or employers who might discriminate on the basis of past criminal records.

Alarmingly, facial recognition software can fail as much as 20% of the time, which means that police could be taking the wrong people into custody, drawing incorrect conclusions about people they encounter on the street, and potentially making fatally bad choices. If, for example, biometric identification tags a man as a person with a violent criminal record and he reached for his wallet to provide his identification, police might mistakenly believe he was reaching for a weapon and seriously injure or kill him.

Such technologies are spreading across police forces in the United States, often without public notice, warning, or fanfare. Increasingly, they raise an important question: is the vision of freedom and democracy being trampled under the boot of paranoia?

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Photo credit: Elvert Barnes.

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70 comments

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1:35PM PST on Nov 21, 2013

Damn CREEPY.

8:22PM PST on Nov 20, 2013

Sounds like the level of error made by these technologies is about the same as human error. Of course they are designed and built by humans, what else can we expect ?

7:39AM PST on Nov 20, 2013

Pretty soon we will have things put in all homes to see what all we do. It seems it could happen. No privacy in any room of the home. Invasion for sure.

5:27PM PST on Nov 19, 2013

As much as what it is, I'm more alarmed with the 'they' are who are collecting and have access to all this information...

10:12AM PST on Nov 19, 2013

1984/Brave New World? we are here!!

9:38PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

Thank you! (s, p, t)

9:33PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

true blue americans by nature have lots to hide and that is our privilege.......any law enforcement officer who demands that I present my papers on demand represents the corporate overlords.......we as freedom loving americans deserve the police state we have voted for.........the war on terror is the war on drugs on steroids........

9:10PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

When it comes to security the objective is if you have nothing to hide then there's nothing to hide. Even if facial recognition becomes an inconvenience. The thrust of the day is the world is getting more and more diaspora and dangerous. You just do not know who is who and what is what and the real intentions. To save lives is only to live with surveillance that will curtail fear.

9:02PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

Militarization of police forces in USA dangerous.

6:51PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

Crimany. This is big brother on steroids. There will be no end to what the government fed and local will be able to do and we won't be able to say or do anything about it. Our rights (especially to privacy) are toast from here on out. Just remember where ever you are - Keep Smiling! Somebody is watching and it will make them wonder what you are up to!

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