There has been a recent wave of criticism about the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. San Francisco has even gone so far as to ban the use of the technology across government, and other state and local governments are considering similar measures. Yet supporters of the technology, particularly voices from the law enforcement community, have been underrepresented in this debate, and many of the positive uses of facial recognition are not yet fully understood by the public. In particular, there are many opportunities to use facial recognition technology as an investigative tool to solve crimes; as a security countermeasure against threats in schools, airports, and other public venues; and as means to securely identify individuals at ports of entry.
On July 24, 2019, ITIF held a discussion about the benefits of using facial recognition for law enforcement and public safety, the current safeguards in place that govern its use, and the opportunities for policymakers to address legitimate concerns without limiting the potential of this technology.
ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro began the event by addressing the potential benefits facial recognition technology could have for law enforcement officials. However, if we expect law enforcement to meet the needs of our communities, then they need to be able to use the best tools. As this new technology is implemented in the field, agencies must adapt their practices and respond to new challenges as they emerge.
Panelists discussed how this technology is currently used in law enforcement. Maureen McGough, National Programs Director for the National Police Foundation, explained how integrating regional intelligence centers through facial recognition helps to facilitate cooperation across jurisdictional lines. She also noted that community involvement and transparency play key roles in the introduction of this technology.
Panelists also discussed the policy challenges that facial recognition technology poses for agencies and lawmakers. Eddie Reyes, Director of the Office of Public Safety Communications for the Prince William County Virginia 911 and the former Senior Deputy Chief of the Alexandria Police Department, outlined that policy should consider image capture, image use, image retention, image accuracy, human oversight, and executive management.
Then Michael Hardin, Director of Policy for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, discussed the disparities that are often associated with facial recognition technology, especially with regard to race and gender. He noted that the technology has improved significantly, and that research has shown that machines are better than people at matching a photo to a person. Reyes also added that it would never be permissible or appropriate to make an arrest based solely on facial recognition; any arrest must require probable cause. Despite these challenges, Reyes acknowledged that technology generally helps to fill the gap in human law enforcement capacity.
Reyes also discussed how facial recognition technology will help law enforcement to better manage their time and resources. He compared the efficiency gains to that of automated finger print identification technology. Prior to the introduction of this technology, evidence technicians would manually compare thousands of records for weeks, whereas this new technology identifies finger prints within seconds.
Benji Hutchinson, Vice President of Federal Operations at the NEC Corporation of America, then discussed the dramatic improvements in the accuracy of facial recognition technology, highlighting error rates as low as one percent. He explained that facial recognition technology can be used to provide investigatory leads in situations such as reunifying families and dispelling those that have been wrongly convicted. As algorithm technology continues to improve, the error rates will continue to decrease.
As Castro mentioned, facial recognition bans have been introduced or considered in multiple cities. The panelists agreed that certain rhetoric used in the bans creates a negative stigma towards facial recognition technology. McGough noted the importance of establishing digital trust and educating communities about this emerging technology.
As the panelists highlighted, innovative efforts have enabled facial recognition technology to become a critical tool in the law enforcement sector. However, there are still challenges to address. Policymakers should work to understand this new technology and support policy that enables its full potential.