How are due process and privacy rights secured in during a time when its so easy to identify and track people?
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Imagine you’re at a large protest, thousands of demonstrators gathered. Police stand nearby, tasked with protecting those speaking out and maintaining safety. At each officer’s chest, a red light shows a body camera is recording, ensuring the officers do not engage in improper conduct. But what if that red light also meant a program was scanning, recording, and cataloging the face of every person in the crowd. Would you feel safe?
It would be a sad irony if police body cameras, brought into communities to check police power, became tools that improperly expanded it. But as they are rapidly being deployed in cities across the country, often without clear policies designed to protect privacy, we may be failing to fully consider the risks of pervasive surveillance these devices pose. And in addition to existing concerns, a huge new issue is rapidly approaching: body cameras that use facial recognition technology.
And body cameras that incorporate facial recognition technology are certainly on the horizon. This summer Taser International, by far the nation’s biggest producer of police body cameras, announced plans to incorporate facial recognition technology into its cameras in the future. And so far, not a single city places adequate limits on its use. Even if these enhanced technologies don’t lead to a world where “every cop will be RoboCop,” as Taser vice president Steve Tuttle once suggested, we need to talk about the real ways in which facial recognition devices could be used—and misused—and what limits should be put on their use.
. . . The least controversial use of facial recognition would be to identify individuals in relation to emergencies—setting police cameras to scan the city for the face of a missing child or a suspect in an ongoing kidnapping during an Amber Alert, for example, or for an active shooter. It’s hard to imagine persuasive objections to this specific use of the technology, since responding to an imminent threat is a commonly accepted exception to Fourth Amendment rules that generally require warrants for certain police action.
Law enforcement agencies might also use this biometric data to try to identify other fugitives at large in nonemergency situations—sending out face prints of individuals that have outstanding arrest warrants to body cameras, which could then scan police footage for chance matches. Such a system could take “Most Wanted” posters into the 21st century and help catch dangerous fugitives much more efficiently. The requirement of an active warrant would also give judicial oversight to the technology’s deployment.
. . . Beyond ability to target anyone with an outstanding warrant, this technology could also offer a powerful new means for location tracking and monitoring of the entire public. Law enforcement agencies commonly use location tracking for investigations—following an individual in public, attaching GPS tracking devices to cars, or obtaining cellphone locations from telecommunications companies, for example. But each of these methods requires intensive resources or, with some methods, a warrant.
By enhancing police-worn body cameras with facial recognition technology, beat cops themselves could be turned into a citywide mass automated tracking tool. But without judicial oversight, location tracking will not necessarily be limited to suspected wrongdoers. Law enforcement could use the technology to identify, monitor, and intimidate individuals involved in nonillicit activities absent any judicial review or prior arrests.
Most disturbingly, this could occur not only by tracking an individual, but also by targeting sensitive locations or events. Think if police were able to review body camera footage and use facial recognition to catalog every participant in a protest or every person that walked into a local mosque. Facial recognition and body cameras could quickly create a much more powerful, digital version of J. Edgar Hoover’s secret “enemies” lists.