Opinion: Time to End Police Use of Facial Recognition Tech

The use of facial recognition technology by police represents a breach of the public trust and a move toward the sort of widespread and invasive surveillance that has no place in our communities.

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(TNS) — Police departments in Hampton and Newport News recently joined the ignoble list of law enforcement agencies that lied about its officers using controversial facial recognition software, an intrusive violation of citizens’ personal privacy.

While it might be tempting to ascribe that as a misstep made in the interest of safety, the use of such programs represents a breach of the public trust and a move toward the sort of widespread and invasive surveillance that has no place in our communities.

Virginians can be thankful that the facts are now known and that this issue is being debated in the public square. They should also find some comfort that the General Assembly this year passed a law prohibiting the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement agencies without explicit legislative approval.

The company responsible for creating the database, Clearview AI, built its platform using publicly available data — about 3 billion photos scraped from social media platforms and that are readily obtainable online.

It markets its program to law enforcement, exploiting the absence of laws governing the use of that technology and providing officers extraordinary power to identify, monitor and even track people regardless of whether they’ve been accused of a crime.

That would seem to violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizures — though the potential constitutional violations are only one troubling aspect of this. One can only imagine the type of abuse that a database of personal images would enable should a user employ that database for nefarious ends.

What’s more, it gives considerable power to the company that owns the platform. Clearview can track law enforcement searches, for instance, and keep tabs on individuals if it so chooses. There have to be clear guidelines for the use of such information and firm penalties for its abuse, both of which do not exist at the federal level.

But the trouble locally is not only that officers at several Hampton Roads police departments were using it, but that they lied when asked about it.

BuzzFeed News last week published a list of law enforcement agencies that have used the platform, counting more than 600 of them in all. It includes the Hampton, Newport News and Norfolk police departments as well as the Virginia State Police.

Officials at all four agencies denied using the software when asked about it in recent months by Virginian-Pilot reporters, only to admit that, yes, officers did conduct searches once confronted with the proof.

In March, the Pilot reported that 10 Beach detectives had signed up for Clearview accounts in 2019, but officials claimed in February 2020 and again in September that the department wasn’t using the software.

In Norfolk, officers had used Clearview until Chief Larry Boone halted it in February 2020, telling the Pilot about it in June of last year. The revelation surprised most of the city’s elected officials, who didn’t know until the newspaper told them.

Now Hampton and Newport News can be added to that roster. After claiming twice in 2020 that those agencies had never used Clearview’s database, the reporting by BuzzFeed proved otherwise. While the number of searches was limited — between 11 and 50 times — it is worrisome that department leaders did not know or did not tell the truth.

It’s entirely possible that officers were using Clearview technology without supervisors’ approval. That’s what the departments now say. But that, too, should trouble the public, since it raises questions about a lack of oversight and transparency.

But an end to the legal use of this technology may not put the controversy to rest. Law enforcement has a difficult job, but it will not be made easier through the erosion of civil liberties and the diminishing of personal privacy.

Rather, it can be done by strengthening the bonds of trust between officers and the public they serve. Using this software — and lying about it — only serves to weaken those bonds, hardly what Hampton Roads needs from its police departments.

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