Facial recognition technology may seem like just a feature on our phones, but it’s already being used to solve crimes in our own backyard. Police departments all over the country, in Florida and even on campus are using this technology to identify suspects of unsolved crimes.
The Tampa Bay Times reported on Feb. 11 that University Police (UP) took part in a trial run of a facial recognition program created by software company Clearview AI.
Neither UP nor any other police department in Tampa Bay is in an active contract with the company, though Pinellas County is reported to have found a suspect while part of the trial run. Still, many counties in Florida actively subscribe to the program already, including Broward and Volusia counties.
Police interest in this technology is a major concern to those who value their privacy.
Clearview AI uses a massive database of billions of photos found online and compares them to a suspect’s photo. In an instant the algorithm can potentially find any photo posted online featuring that suspect. The company’s software has been used by police departments all over the U.S.. but are people comfortable with governments using this kind of technology?
There’s already so much concern surrounding governments and companies tracking individuals using data that comes off of our cell phones. Now, we also have to be concerned that a police officer can discover our entire online presence simply by snapping a photo.
It’s always important to ask about whether this technology can be misused. If there was ever a contentious protest taking place, it shouldn’t comfort anyone to know that a police department may be able to identify every individual who may appear in a photo taking part in a demonstration.
Historically, police agencies have targeted individuals involved in civil protests. Since 2014, the FBI has been tracking activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, according to an investigation by the Intercept in March 2018.
For organizations that highlight wrongdoing from law enforcement, these tactics can be used as a way to intimidate. It would be easy for law enforcement organizations to get all online data from a protestor who simply was attending a protest where they were photographed.
Three U.S. cities — San Francisco and Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts — have already implemented a ban on this kind of technology for any city agency. Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocate for the ban in San Francisco, told BBC News that facial recognition technology for police is “incompatible with a healthy democracy.” Cagle added that “residents deserve a voice in decisions about high-tech surveillance.”
Luckily, no law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area are actively in contract with Clearview AI, but the possibility raises serious concerns. It’s important for our federal and state governments to actively regulate this technology and even consider banning it.
Jared Sellick is a senior studying political science.