It might not be long before police departments across the U.S. begin using real-time facial recognition systems. In fact, according to a recent report by Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University who studies facial recognition, law enforcement agencies in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities are already moving quickly to install them.
In Detroit, the police have a million-dollar system that allows them to screen hundreds of private and public cameras set up around the city—in gas stations, fast-food restaurants, churches, apartment buildings, schools, and other places. The faces caught by these cameras can be searched in real time against Michigan’s driver’s license photo database.
Detroit’s police department says the system isn’t currently in use. Still, civil liberties advocates argue that being able to observe and identify people at a distance could threaten their basic rights, such as the First Amendment right to free speech. People might be too fearful to attend a protest, for example, if they think they’re being watched. Civil liberties proponents also worry that in the wrong hands, the technology could be used to monitor marginalized groups, such as minorities or immigrants.
This technology “provides government with unprecedented power to track people going about their daily lives,” says Matt Cagle, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “That’s incompatible with a healthy democracy.”
Even some people involved with the companies creating this technology are speaking out against it. In May, many Amazon shareholders called on the company to prohibit sales of its facial recognition system, Amazon Rekognition, to government agencies unless its board concludes that the technology doesn’t contribute to human rights violations. Amazon, however, says it’s not going to pull Rekognition from the shelves.