October 30, 2019

How Do We Balance Security and Privacy in a World of Facial Recognition?

By Jacqueline Isaacs

California’s Governor Newsom recently signed into law a state-wide ban on the use of facial recognition surveillance by law enforcement agencies. Our executive director for the LAMP program, Bartlett Cleland, explains in CPO Magazine why this is a “decisive move” for individual privacy. According to Cleland,

The use of facial recognition technology, which scans faces for the purposes of identifying individuals, has been increasingly used by local, state and federal law enforcement across the country. But the technology is not just being used to catch criminals. It has also been combined with artificial intelligence in an attempt to anticipate who might eventually commit a crime, and then to surveil them.

With the absence of laws governing government use of such technologies, disclosure of technology use and techniques is rare.  We often only get a glimpse via court cases or internal leaks. The result is that, in general, law abiding citizens have no idea that they are being surveilled as they go about their daily lives. They are being surveilled by the government “just in case” they might commit a crime.

Cleland explains that part of the concern with this technology is that data being collected in the preemption of crimes treats all citizens as suspects. “In a world where crime is anticipated and all citizens are viewed as potential criminals, then all information collected stays relevant,” he argues. He goes on to explain the following,

The move to limit rapidly-developing technology for warrantless surveillance comes as the U.S. Congress develops legislation that would curb or even halt the technology. Recently, more than two dozen civil liberties and consumer advocacy groups petitioned Congress, as well as local and state officials nationwide, to ban law enforcement from using facial recognition technology. Others have suggested that an outright nationwide ban on facial recognition software use should be enacted.

While limiting government to protect our liberties is a good idea, a blanket ban is not the right policy. As with any new technology, the approach should not be prophylactic regulations or limitations that are founded on imagined harms or possibilities. That is no better than mass, continuing surveillance by government believing that someone must be a criminal. Rather, regulation should only be considered after the showing of a real harm and then enacted in the least restrictive option available. In the meantime, facial recognition technology should be allowed to fight for survival in the marketplace.

Such technology could be successful as a biometric identifier to unlock a secure access point, or to guard against trespassers on private property. If mobile devices want to provide facial recognition as a means for an individual to interact with their technology, then government should not be meddling in that transaction. The marketplace will figure out what goes too far as to private sector uses of facial recognition.

While Cleland believes California's ban on law enforcement using facial recognition for unwarranted surveillance is promising, he doesn’t recommend similar policies on the federal level. He believes that “neither knee jerk technopanic thinking, nor embracing all police state tactics are the answers to facial recognition technology.”

Read the entire op-ed here: Facing Down the Surveillance State

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