You probably remember the day you got your driver’s license. You went to the department of motor vehicles, took a driving test, stood for a photograph and then got your license. What if you — and most other teens in the United States — were then asked to submit your fingerprints for criminal investigations by the FBI or state police?

It sounds absurd, even Orwellian. Yet, one by one, over the past 15 years, 29 states have done something similar with our faces: They have allowed police or the FBI to use face-recognition technology to scan and search drivers’ faces for investigations — much like they would the fingerprints of criminals. In this way, most American adults can find themselves in a criminal face-recognition network.

In 1892, Sir Francis Galton published a treatise in which he argued that the patterns on our fingers were “an incomparably surer criterion of identity than any other bodily feature.” Today, fingerprinting is ubiquitous. But the limits of the technique are clear: Fingerprinting is a targeted, one-off process whereby a single person is identified, typically through an in-person or on-site interaction.

Advanced face recognition, on the other hand, lets police identify people from far away and without interacting with them. It also lets them remotely identify groups of people. Picture police using telescope-like cameras to surreptitiously photograph and identify organized-crime figures at a meeting. Imagine a street surveillance camera that scans the face of every person walking by. Now, picture a world in which body-worn police cameras are equipped with real-time face-scanning software.

This is real technology — on sale, in use or coming soon. These tools will catch dangerous criminals, but, left unchecked, they also create profound questions about the future of our society.

Will you attend a protest if you know the government can secretly scan your face and identify you – as police in Baltimore did during the Freddie Gray protests? Do you have the right to walk down your street without having your face scanned? If you don’t, will you lead your life in the same way? Will you go to a psychiatrist? A marriage counselor? An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?


In the future, will you call the police if, seconds after seeing you, an officer’s body camera will scan your face and search it against various government databases? What if you have a criminal record? What if you have overstayed your visa?

In scope, law-enforcement face-recognition systems recall the National Security Agency’s call-records program, which logged all of our calls in the form of metadata. Face-recognition technology already scans some 125 million adult faces. This has never happened before — not with DNA or fingerprints, which are kept in smaller national networks made up mostly of known or suspected criminals.

Yet law-enforcement face-recognition systems have received a fraction of the NSA’s oversight. No federal law governs face recognition. No court decision limits it. On Wednesday morning, a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will mark only the second congressional hearing on the subject.

Over 4½ years, the FBI searched drivers’ faces more than 36,000 times — without warrants, audits or regular accuracy tests. Maryland and Ohio enrolled all of their drivers’ faces into criminal face-recognition networks without telling them. In Florida, the oldest and perhaps most frequently used system lets police search someone’s face even if that person is not suspected of a crime. In fact, officers are encouraged to use face recognition “whenever practical.”

This rules-free environment is made worse by the fact that face-recognition technology makes mistakes — far more than fingerprints. A 2012 study co-written by an FBI expert found that face recognition makes more mistakes when searching for the faces of African Americans, women and young people. Depending on how a system is configured, these errors could result in innocent people being investigated.

You may brush off modern privacy invasions. Perhaps you have nothing to hide. But do you resemble someone who does?

Alvaro Bedoya is the founding executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology and co-author of “The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America.”

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