As you walk down a city street, you pass by a camera inconspicuously perched on top of a utility pole. Instantly, the device captures an image of your face and runs it against a database containing millions of photos. Within seconds, the system identifies you and logs your location. Should your name be flagged for any reason (or perhaps you resemble a miscreant) police immediately descend on you and haul you away.
This may sound like a scenario of of a George Orwell novel, but law enforcement agencies across the United States have already developed these kinds of surveillance systems, and facial recognition technology continues to proliferate rapidly. The implementation and expansion of face recognition systems often happen without any oversight or even public disclosure, creating the potential for the type of constant monitoring Big Brother only dreamed about.
The Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law recently released “The Perpetual Lineup,” a massive report on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. You can read the complete report at perpetuallineup.org. The organization conducted a year-long investigation and collected more than 15,000 pages of documents through more than 100 public records requests.The report paints a disturbing picture of intense cooperation between the federal government, and state and local law enforcement to develop a massive facial recognition database.
“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight. But those controls by and large don’t exist today,” report co-author Clare Garvie said. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”
According to the report, law enforcement face recognition networks include photos of more than 117 million adults. Many of the pictures enter the system when police take mugshots during booking after an arrest, but increasingly, police have access to photos of innocent people. Currently, at least 16 states allow the FBI to access their driver’s license and ID photos. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras in some cities. and automatic license plate reader cameras that capture photos of vehicle occupants along with plate numbers and location information also provide entry points into the system.
Once your photograph finds its way into one of these state, local or federal databases, law enforcement officers across the country can access it, putting you, along with millions of other Americans, in a perpetual photo lineup.
State, local and federal cooperation, and information sharing make the entire system tick.
The FBI maintains the largest facial recognition system in the country. Known as Next Generation Identification Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS), it contains some 25 million state and federal criminal photos, mostly mugshots shared by state and local law enforcement agencies. Photos remain in the system even if a court never convicts the individual of a crime. It remains unclear what other types of photos end up in NGI-IPS. The FBI face recognition unit (FACE Services), along with police in seven states, can run photos against the FBI database
The FBI’s FACE Services not only runs facial recognition searches against its own database, it can also access a massive network of databases that include 411.9 million photos. Perpetuallineup,org describes the shocking breadth of FBI facial search capabilities.
Over 185 million of these photos are drawn from 12 states that let the FBI to search their driver’s license and other ID photos; another 50 million are from four additional states that let the FBI to search both driver’s license photos and mug shots. While we do not know the total number of individuals that those photos implicate, there are close to 64 million licensed drivers in those 16 states. In 2015, the FBI launched a pilot program to search the passport database. It remains unclear if the system can access the entire 125 million passport database or just a subset.
In a May 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office reported that the FBI was negotiating with 18 additional states and the District of Columbia to access their driver’s license photos. In August, the GAO re-released the report, deleting all references to the 18 states and stating that there were “no negotiations underway.” The FBI now suggests that FBI agents had only conducted outreach to those states to explore the possibility of their joining the FACE Services network.
State and local law enforcement agencies also share databases with other federal agencies. According to the report, the Department of Defense, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the U.S. Marshals Service have all had access to one or more state or local facial recognition systems.
At least a quarter of all U.S. law enforcement agencies currently have access to face recognition databases. According to the report, “at least 26 states (and potentially as many as 30) allow law enforcement to run or request searches against their databases of driver’s license and ID photos. Roughly one in two American adults has their photos searched this way.”
The Pinellas County, Fla., Sheriffs Offices provides a striking example of how local agencies fuel this nationwide surveillance net. According to the report, the Pinellas system runs 8,000 monthly searches on the faces of Florida’s 7 million drivers. The department does not even require reasonable suspicion before a deputy runs a search. According to the county’s public defender office, the sheriff’s office has never referenced the use of facial recognition in its Brady disclosures. Under the Brady Rule, prosecutors must provide defense teams with any evidence or information that would prove the innocence of their client, or that would enable the defense to question the credibility of government witnesses.
According to the report, over 5,300 officials from 242 federal, state, and local agencies have access to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s facial recognition system.
FBI agents in Florida field offices have direct access to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office system, which can run searches against all of Florida driver’s license photos. Notably, the GAO does not identify Florida as forming part of the FACE Services network. It is possible that other field offices can access other state systems, such as those in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
With facial recognition technology, police and other government officials have the capability to track individuals in real time. These systems allow law enforcement agents to use video cameras and continually scan everybody who walks by. According to the report, several major police departments have expressed an interest in this type of real-time tracking. Documents revealed agencies in at least five major cities, including Los Angeles, either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology with the capability, or expressed a written interest in buying it.
In 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department announced the installation of 16 new surveillance cameras in “undisclosed locations” across the San Fernando Valley. The cameras were mobile, wireless, and programmed to support face recognition “at distances of up to 600 feet.” LA Weekly reported that they fed into the LAPD’s Real-time Analysis and Critical Response Center, which would scan the faces in the feed against “hot lists” of wanted criminals or “documented” gang members. It appears that every person who walks by those cameras has her face searched in this way.
Police operate these face recognition systems with little oversight and oftentimes in complete secrecy. For example, Ohio’s system remained almost completely unknown to the public for five years. With their rapid proliferation, potential for abuse and the threat to basic privacy rights posted by facial recognition surveillance, state and local governments need to make oversight and placing limits on law enforcement use of facial recognition a top priority. At the least, law enforcement agencies should be required to get local government approval in a public meeting before obtaining facial recognition technology. Our Local Ordinance to Limit Surveillance Technology covers this.
State and local governments should also take steps to limit access to non-criminal databases such as driver’s license photos without a warrant.
This report didn’t dig into facial recognition system funding, but in all likelihood, the federal government heavily involves itself in helping state and local agencies obtain this technology. The feds provide grant money to local law enforcement agencies for a vast array of surveillance gear, including ALPRs, stingray devices and drones. The federal government essentially encourages and funds a giant nationwide surveillance net and then taps into the information via the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
Because of the tight interconnectedness between state, local and federal facial recognition systems, even just imposing limits at the local level goes a long way toward thwarting the federal surveillance state.
Photo by Mirko Tobias Schäfer via Flickr.