Opinion: Facial Recognition Vital to Nab Capitol Assailants

While cities ranging from San Francisco to Boston have worked to ban facial recognition outright, without that technology, the FBI and Capitol Police would have had a harder job arresting the Capitol insurrectionists.

An abstract image of facial recognition being used on a crowd.
Shutterstock/varuna
(TNS) — Ban face recognition outright, goes the progressive cry — one that OaklandSan Francisco and Boston have all heeded, on the theory that government becomes Big Brother when it uses technology to identify suspected criminal perpetrators in bystander snapshots or security camera images.

But if the FBI and Capitol Police had been under such a ban, dozens of perpetrators would almost surely have evaded justice for the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Interviews with witnesses, fingerprint-dusting, forensic sleuthing of online chats and other attempts to connect dots are well and good, but especially after mayhem the likes of which unfolded in D.C., there’s simply no substitute for being able to take an at-the-scene photo, two or three — say, of someone hurling a heavy object at an officer — and let a computer algorithm help determine who that person is.

The algorithm doesn’t get it right every time, and currently has the most trouble matching Black and Brown faces, which means cops must verify the match through other means. But at least they get a huge head start in bringing people to justice, and what’s wrong with that?

This is not to say that cops should have carte blanche to employ any face recognition system for any purpose whatsoever. To safeguard privacy and prevent abuse, it might make sense to legally restrict use of the technology to felony investigations. Or to require comparing pictures to mugshots and driver’s license photos, not the seemingly endless repositories of billions of pictures, mostly posted on social media, that Clearview AI found by crawling the internet.

But outright bans force law enforcers and prosecutors to revert to relying most heavily on flawed eyewitness identification, which the Innocence Project calls the leading factor in wrongful convictions. That’s a dystopian future nobody should want.

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