After the recent deluge of videos showing police abusing and sometimes flat-out murdering more-or-less innocent citizens, the willingness of a growing number of cities to equip officers with video cameras has been hailed as a victory by civil libertarians.
For years, the development of real-time face recognition has been hampered by poor video resolution, the angles of bodies in motion, and limited computing power. But as systems begin to transcend these technical barriers, they are also outpacing the development of policies to constrain them. Civil liberties advocates fear that the rise of real-time face recognition alongside the growing number of police body cameras creates the conditions for a perfect storm of mass surveillance.
“The main concern is that we’re already pretty far along in terms of having this real-time technology, and we already have the cameras,” said Jake Laperruque, a fellow at the Constitution Project. “These cameras are small, hard to notice, and all over the place. That’s a pretty lethal combination for privacy unless we have reasonable rules on how they can be used together.”
This imminent reality has led several civil liberties groups to call on police departments and legislators to implement clear policies on camera footage retention, biometrics, and privacy. On Wednesday morning, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology, where advocates emphasized the dangers of allowing advancements in real-time recognition to broaden surveillance powers. As Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, told Congress, pairing the technology with body cameras, in particular, “will redefine the nature of public spaces.”
The integration of real-time face recognition with body-worn cameras is further along than lawmakers and citizens realize. A recent Justice Department-funded survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that at least nine out of 38 manufacturers of body cameras currently have facial recognition capacities or have built in an option for such technology to be used later.
Taser, which leads the market for body cameras, recently acquired two startups that will allow it to run video analytics on the footage the cameras collect, and Taser’s CEO has repeatedly emphasized the development of real-time applications, such as scanning videos for faces, objects, and suspicious activity. A spokesperson for NTechLab, which has pilot projects in 20 countries including the United States, China, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, told The Intercept that its high-performing algorithm is already compatible with body cameras.
Police see the appeal. The captain of the Las Vegas Police Department told Bloomberg in July that he envisions his officers someday patrolling the Strip with “real-time analysis” on their body cameras and an earpiece to tell them, “‘Hey, that guy you just passed 20 feet ago has an outstanding warrant.’”
At least five U.S. police departments, including those in Los Angeles and New York, have already purchased or looked into purchasing real-time face recognition for their CCTV cameras, according to a study of face recognition technology published by Bedoya and other researchers at Georgetown. Bedoya emphasized that it’s only a matter of time until the nation’s body-worn cameras will be hooked up to real-time systems. With 6,000 of the country’s 18,000 police agencies estimated to be using body cameras, the pairing would translate into hundreds of thousands of new, mobile surveillance cameras.
“For many of these systems, the inclusion of real-time face recognition is just a software update away,” said Harlan Yu, co-author of a report on body camera policies for Upturn, a technology think tank.
Civil liberties experts warn that just walking down the street in a major urban center could turn into an automatic law enforcement interaction. With the ability to glean information at a distance, officers would not need to justify a particular interaction or find probable cause for a search, stop, or frisk. Instead, everybody walking past a given officer on his patrol could be subject to a “perpetual line-up,” as the Georgetown study put it. In Ferguson, Missouri, where a Justice Department investigation showed that more than three-quarters of the population had outstanding warrants, real-time face searches could give police immense power to essentially arrest individuals at will. And in a city like New York, which has over 100 officers per square mile and plans to equip each one of them with body cameras by 2019, the privacy implications of turning every beat cop into a surveillance camera are enormous.
“The inclusion of face recognition really changes the nature and purpose of body cameras, and it changes what communities expect when they call for and pay for cameras with taxpayer dollars,” Yu said. “I think there’s a real fear in communities of color, where officers are already concentrated, that these body-worn cameras will become another tool for surveillance rather than a tool for accountability.”