Commentary

Want a new mobile phone? First, give the state your face

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Last week, the government of China initiated a mandate that every new SIM card registrant submit to a facial recognition scan to be provided to the state. SIM cards are tiny, portable memory chips in cell phones that carry unique information about each user. Most phones have detachable SIM cards so the user can carry his or her phone number, contacts, or other data with them when they change smartphones. This policy will force every smartphone user in China to supply unique personal information to the government.

This move marks an enormous intrusion on personal liberty, even for modern China. A facial recognition scan, like a fingerprint, displays a unique set of data points measuring facial features for every individual.

Could this happen only in Communist China, and not in the United States? States and localities across the U.S. already utilize facial recognition technology. Although a majority of Americans are skeptical of tech companies and advertisers using it, Pew reports 56 percent are comfortable with its use by law enforcement. 

A few jurisdictions, like Cambridge, Massachusetts and the state of California, have banned police use of the technology. The city council of Portland, Maine recently considered preemptively banning the city’s use of the technology, but decided to table the issue until after the swearing-in of newly-elected mayor Kate Snyder. 

Even though many Americans are concerned for their security in public spaces, recent reports show that government agencies may overstep ethical and legal bounds in their use of facial scanning technology.

The Government Accountability Office reported that since 2011, the FBI has logged over 390,000 facial recognition searches of local and federal databases, despite the practice having never been authorized by Congress or many state legislatures. Research by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law showed that the FBI and ICE have taken facial scans of thousands of Americans–without warrants–through access to motor vehicle records. 

This year, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a rule to require facial recognition scans for all travelers passing through U.S. airports–even U.S. citizens. Americans’ expectation of privacy and Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure could be fully hollowed out by these slow encroachments on personal liberty.

Over 80 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and that number climbs to more than 90 percent for those age 34 and under. How many of us would submit a facial scan to the government in order to purchase a new phone? Fifty percent? Ninety percent? I would bet that sales of the next iPhone release would barely take a hit. A startling mindset of compliance exists in the American psyche when it comes to trading freedom for convenience.

A healthy distrust of government could save us from going down a road paved by totalitarian regimes. Maintaining the unique character of the American republic when it comes to the sanctity of individual rights should be top-of-mind for all of us when it comes to rolling out new technology. Let this be a warning.

About Nick Murray

Nick is the Outreach Coordinator at Maine Policy Institute, working to plan events, engage with supporters, and spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around the state.

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