ACLU Urges Justice Department to Investigate the Use and Impact of Face Recognition

October 18, 2016

CONTACT: Gabriela Melendez, national ACLU, 202-715-0826, gmelendez@aclu.org
Brittany Oliver, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8550 ext. 171, media@aclu-md.org

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today is urging the Justice Department to investigate the use and impact of face recognition, given mounting evidence that it is violating the rights of millions of Americans and having a disproportionate impact on communities of color. This comes on the heels of a report released today by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology that found that police departments across the country are frequently using face recognition technologies to identify and track individuals - whether crossing the street, captured on surveillance cameras, or attending protests. The report highlights that existing deficiencies are likely to have a disparate impact on African Americans.  

In Maryland, police throughout the state can run face recognition searches of over 7 million Maryland driver's license and ID photos, over 3 million Maryland arrest booking photos (mug shots), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Next Generation Identification (NGI) database of 24.9 million mug shots. Georgetown Law's report shows that use of Maryland's system has not been audited in the 5 years it has been active. No policy was provided in response to Georgetown's public records request, but a fact sheet on the system indicates that probable cause is required prior to a search.

The ACLU of Maryland is raising concerns about recent revelations in documents obtained from Geofeedia, a social media monitoring software marketed to law enforcement agencies, that police in Maryland can use facial recognition software to identify faces in photographs of demonstrations posted on social media platforms and match them to persons with open warrants.  Use of facial recognition in this context has obvious chilling effects on the exercise of First Amendment freedoms, particularly given the imperfections in both computer and human facial matching, which recent studies show have an error rate of 50 percent.  And the claimed use of facial recognition in protests about police misconduct raises questions about whether the technique is being used in a racially disparate way, as well as whether the "probable cause" standard is being adhered to.  

In addition, the use of arrest booking photo databases raises concerns about racial disparities, particularly in Baltimore where tens of thousands of people were arrested but not prosecuted every year during the City's "zero tolerance" policing strategies, the vast majority of whom were people of color.  Local officials need to clarify whether those arrests remain in the facial recognition databases.

"We need to stop the widespread use of face recognition technology by police until meaningful safeguards are in place," said Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel.  "Half of all adults in the country are in government face recognition databases, yet the vast majority of law enforcement agencies using this technology lack clear policies, audits to ensure accuracy, and transparency."

The national ACLU in partnership with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights spearheaded a coalition letter that was sent today to the Justice Department signed by diverse organizations. The letter called for a prompt investigation on the use of face recognition by law enforcement agencies, especially on the impacts on communities of color.

"We would not let anyone drive a car without working brakes," continued Guliani. "Similarly, technologies like face recognition should not be deployed without basic safeguards to ensure that they do not harm the very communities they seek to protect."

The national ACLU statement is online here:
https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-urges-justice-department-investigate-police-use-face-recognition

The ACLU and Leadership Conference coalition letter is here:
https://www.aclu.org/letter/coalition-letter-department-justice-civil-rights-division-calling-investigation-disparate

The Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology report is here:
http://www.perpetuallineup.org