Facial recognition technology is such a powerful tool for surveillance that it raises profound questions about privacy and law enforcement. But before we’ve even gotten around to considering how the technology affects our daily lives, in many ways it’s already a part of them.

That’s why Maine should not waste time in creating a legal framework under which facial recognition can be used. Technology with such a potential for abuse should not go unregulated.

The issue recently came up in the city of Portland, where councilors this week delayed a vote on a proposal to prohibit city employees from using facial recognition technology until a committee can review it.

The technology is not being used currently in Portland, though police said it may at some point be considered for use in conjunction with the body cameras every police officer now wears.

It doesn’t appear to be use elsewhere in the state, but it could have applications not only in general law enforcement but also at ports, airports and the border.

Facial recognition works by mapping the distance between points on a person’s face, creating a unique profile that can be compared to existing databases, such as those containing mugshots or driver’s license photos — about half of Americans now have a photo on such a database.

Law enforcement can use the technology to match, say, footage of a robbery with a mugshot of the offender.

More worrisome, they can also use it to analyze a crowd and put names to faces in a matter of seconds — facial recognition is already used in this way at big athletic events, at airports and at the border.

But while the public may have no problem being under such watchful eyes in a stadium or at an airpot terminal, many would feel differently about it being deployed more widely in the public square.

What’s more, the technology is not reliable when it comes to identifying people of color, making mistaken matches as much as a third of the time.

“Face surveillance is dangerous when it works, and when it doesn’t,” Kade Crockford of ACLU of Massachusetts told the Press Herald. “The government has no business using technology that can facilitate the mass tracking of our every movement in public space – every visit to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a doctor’s office, city hall, or even just a friend’s house. But that’s exactly what this technology enables, in its most dangerous form.”

With that mind, the public needs to know that when facial recognition is being used, it is being used correctly, with all the limits and oversight that entails. Finding the right limits requires an open discussion about the power of facial recognition and our own concept of privacy in public spaces.

Unfortunately, the use of the technology is moving forward without that discussion, and without any real policy in place. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that federal law enforcement had accessed hundreds of millions of photos, mostly from motor vehicle departments, in completing searches without any explicit permission or public governing policy.

In November, the ACLU filed suit against the federal government because it would not say how the technology is being used by the Department of Justice.

Absent defined laws and policies, the use of facial recognition technology is entering our lives under the radar and largely unscrutinized. It’s time for state and federal lawmakers to step in.

 

 

 


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