Keeping Up Appearances: US States Turn Their Backs On Facial Recognition Technology

April 4, 2021

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Multiple US cities have banned the use of facial recognition technology by their law enforcement departments.

What does this mean?

On Friday 12 February, Minneapolis became the latest US city to prohibit its police departments from using facial recognition software. The 13 members of Minneapolis’ City Council voted unanimously for the prohibition. The ban prevents city employees from using facial recognition technology, from requesting a third party to use the technology on their behalf, and from using the results in their investigations.

The technology is currently used in many states. Typically, police departments ask third party providers such as Clearview AI or Amazon’s Rekognition to perform facial recognition searches for them. The results are then used to help police identify suspects.

In enacting the ban, Minneapolis joined a list of other US cities that have imposed similar regulations. Boston, San Francisco, Oakland, Vermont and Portland have all prohibited law enforcement from using facial recognition technology. The severity of the cities’ approaches vary, however, with Portland extending the ban to private companies as well as city law enforcement.

What's the big picture effect?

Facial recognition technology certainly has its benefits. It can speed up criminal investigations and has even been used to find missing children in India and China. It is also used by companies to make our lives more convenient – for instance, some phones can be unlocked with facial recognition. 

Nevertheless, there are many concerns about the technology. The most pressing concern has to do with privacy. The way that facial recognition companies acquire their data can be problematic. Clearview AI, for example, has a portfolio of 3 billion images which it has stripped from social media platforms. It stores pictures even after they have been deleted from the internet. Whilst many people now understand the dangers of putting pictures and information online, it is understandable that Clearview AI’s behaviour may feel like a violation of privacy because the data is taken without people’s knowledge and consent. In Canada, Clearview AI’s technology has been deemed illegal for this reason. Canada’s privacy commissioner stated, “what Clearview does is mass surveillance and it is illegal…It is an affront to individuals’ privacy rights and inflicts broad-based harm on all members of society, who find themselves continually in a police lineup”. 

Another issue is the fact that the technology works best on white men. It is less reliable at detecting the faces of women and people of colour. As stated by Amnesty International, which has launched a global campaign to ban the use of facial recognition, the technology “risks being weaponized by law enforcement against marginalized communities”. Given the racial tensions and ongoing discrimination in the US, facial recognition systems that put people of colour at risk of being misidentified can pose real dangers to members of marginalised communities. 

As such, many will see Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland and the other cities’ rejection of facial recognition systems as a positive step forward. There is now increasing pressure on other states, especially New York, to introduce similar regulations to protect their citizens’ right to privacy.

Report written by Catrin Trefor

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