Should the government be able to use facial recognition technology?

A VeriScan facial recognition tablet takes a photo of a passenger boarding an international flight during a press event announcing ithe next phase of CBP's use of biometrics at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., Sept. 6, 2018. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Photo by Glenn Fawcett

The Portland City Council voted Monday night to postpone consideration of a proposal to ban city employees from obtaining, retaining, accessing or using facial recognition technology, or information provided by facial recognition technology.

Facial recognition technology has already been deployed across the country and is being used by law enforcement and other government entities for security and other purposes. This technology uses biometrics to map facial features and find unique patterns on an individual’s face — this video gives a more detailed explanation of its capabilities. 

For example, it may measure the distance between an individuals’ eyes or the length of their face from forehead to chin to create a facial signature. This signature is compared against government databases stocked with photos of driver’s licenses, state ID cards, passports, etc. to find a match. 

According to a report from the US Government Accountability Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation currently has access to more than 641 million photos, including 21 state databases. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the federal government because they failed to respond to an information request that would have uncovered how the technology is being used and the extent to which the government tracks individuals’ movements and associations. If the ACLU is successful, federal agencies will have to provide this information to them. The public should be aware of this information. 

The debate surrounding facial recognition technology comes down to whether society treasures privacy over security, or vice versa. Some are concerned about facial recognition technology becoming a mass surveillance tool for the government to track individuals’ every move, while others view it as a necessity for national security. According to Georgetown Law Center, Maine police have access to 24.9 million mugshots in the FBI database, and approximately one in two Americans (at least 117 million adults) are in a facial recognition database accessible by police. 

Fight for the Future, a nonprofit that supports facial recognition bans, created an interactive map that illustrate the pervasiveness of facial recognition technology in states and across the country. While it is non-exhaustive, the map clearly shows this technology is widely used by state and local governments to identify individuals. 

In May 2019, San Francisco banned facial recognition technology and was followed by Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts. Other municipalities are currently considering similar proposals. Activists in Denver, Colorado were recently given approval to collect signatures for a ballot measure that would ban city agencies from using facial recognition software. In other words, the fight to ban facial recognition technology is spreading as citizens begin to recognize the potential for its abuse. 

While the City of Portland does not currently use facial recognition technology outside of the Portland Jetport, Councilor Pious Ali, one of the amendment’s sponsors, said it is “a proactive way to say, I do not want this…It’s the right thing to do.” If the proposal passes when reconsidered, Portland would be the first municipality in Maine to enact a ban on facial recognition technology. 

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, giving the government the authority to use facial recognition technology to identify individuals at-will should be concerning to Americans. Prohibiting the practice of using face recognition technology for surveillance before it begins may be the right approach to prevent the government from encroaching on individuals’ rights


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