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Use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement raises privacy, constitutional concerns, P.1

Law enforcement agencies use all kinds of tools and strategies to improve their efforts to identify criminal activity and bring offenders to justice. This includes making use of technologies like three-dimensional crime scene imaging, body-worn cameras, predictive analysis software, thermal imaging, and through-the-wall radar. 

One technology that is coming into increasing use by law enforcement agencies is facial recognition technology, which involves the use of cameras with software that can virtually match an individual’s face to others logged in a database. At present, 16 states allow law enforcement officials to compare the faces of suspects to photographs on driver’s licenses and other identification without obtaining a warrant. 

A recent report issued by Georgetown University raised concerns regarding facial recognition technology, and actually called for greater oversight in the way law enforcement uses the technology to prevent abuse. According to the report, one important concern is that images of over 117 million Americans are contained in law enforcement databases, and a disproportionate number of them are of African Americans. Use of the technology arguably puts this group at disproportionate risk of being impacted by errors with the technology. It isn’t known at present how accurate the software is across the population, and whether there may be racially biases errors. Any positive evidence in that direction would be problematic.

Racial discrimination isn’t the only concern the report raised. The technology could also be used to track people on the basis of political or religious beliefs. Giving law enforcement access to such a resource raises serious privacy concerns, and is certainly concerning from the perspective of criminal defense.

In our next post, we’ll continue looking at this topic, and specifically at the recommendations the Georgetown report made to ensure the technology isn’t abused. 

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