Facial Recognition and the Panopticon

BY Ross Schulman
July 24, 2012
Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law held the first of what will probably be many hearings on the privacy implications of facial recognition software. Much of the conversation somewhat predictably focused on how companies are making use of this new technology, and we agree that care should be taken to be sure that this sort of data collection and use is not abused by actors or used in ways that may harm users, or where they don’t know of the use. Another topic of conversation at the hearing, though, was law enforcement’s use of the technology, and here we worry that protections for citizens are inadequate to address the potential harm. We encourage Chairman Franken and the rest of the committee to look closer at the potential uses by government of this technology and establish reasonable safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy.

There is no doubt that companies employing facial recognition technologies with their users have to carefully consider the privacy implications. There is potential for using the technology improperly and causing harm to users, impacting the trust that users have in the technology and the innovation that might occur in the future. At the same time, Congress should refrain from kneejerk regulating at this time. The technology is brand new and even those engineers working in the space don’t yet know everything it might do to help users. Until the harms and possibilities are more fully understood, regulation is premature.

The other half of the hearing focused on law enforcement uses of facial recognition technology, but disappointingly seemed to be centered on its use by jails as an alternative to fingerprints to make sure that the prisoner who is intended to be released is the one that actually walks out of the jail. Clearly this is an admirable goal, but it is not the controversial aspect of facial recognition that gives us pause in the hands of law enforcement. In cities like London where cameras on every corner record the movements of people, facial recognition software has the potential to create a panopticon in which the day-to-day activities of all citizens can be cataloged and mined by a curious government. We believe this use poses a grave threat to citizen’s civil liberties and should be the focus of close study by the Judiciary Committee.

There is no doubt that companies employing facial recognition technologies with their users have to carefully consider the privacy implications. There is potential for using the technology improperly and causing harm to users, impacting the trust that users have in the technology and the innovation that might occur in the future. At the same time, Congress should refrain from kneejerk regulating at this time. The technology is brand new and even those engineers working in the space don’t yet know everything it might do to help users. Until the harms and possibilities are more fully understood, regulation is premature.The other half of the hearing focused on law enforcement uses of facial recognition technology, but disappointingly seemed to be centered on its use by jails as an alternative to fingerprints to make sure that the prisoner who is intended to be released is the one that actually walks out of the jail. Clearly this is an admirable goal, but it is not the controversial aspect of facial recognition that gives us pause in the hands of law enforcement. In cities like London where cameras on every corner record the movements of people, facial recognition software has the potential to create a panopticon in which the day-to-day activities of all citizens can be cataloged and mined by a curious government. We believe this use poses a grave threat to citizen’s civil liberties and should be the focus of close study by the Judiciary Committee.

The other half of the hearing focused on law enforcement uses of facial recognition technology, but disappointingly seemed to be centered on its use by jails as an alternative to fingerprints to make sure that the prisoner who is intended to be released is the one that actually walks out of the jail. Clearly this is an admirable goal, but it is not the controversial aspect of facial recognition that gives us pause in the hands of law enforcement. In cities like London where cameras on every corner record the movements of people, facial recognition software has the potential to create a panopticon in which the day-to-day activities of all citizens can be cataloged and mined by a curious government. We believe this use poses a grave threat to citizen’s civil liberties and should be the focus of close study by the Judiciary Committee.

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