Technology has advanced our lives in a big way, positively and negatively, of this there is no doubt. But have we allowed these advancements to be taken too far?
With government and social media becoming more and more intrusive, our quest for safety post 9/11 has eased us into a false sense of security. Our knee-jerk reactions to calamities have turned us from strong, resilient Americans who come up with (good) solutions, to cowards who rush to misinterpret, or worse, rescind our constitutional rights. Recently while posting on facebook, I noticed an invitation to set up facial recognition.
Considering I have the camera lens on my iMac and Macpook covered with a Post-it, I am not going to do that. My social media avatar is not even a picture of me, but rest assured the government already has my photo. In fact, the FBI boasts that it has a database full of images. The majority of these images are of people who have no criminal record and have committed no crimes according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GOA). The GOA report states that not only does the FBI have 30 million mug shots in the Bureau’s Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation Services Unit, but they also have access to driver’s license, visa, passport and even the Department of Defense’s biometric database.
These states provide the FBI full access to their resident’s data including facial recognition: North Dakota, Utah, Michigan and South Carolina.
It doesn’t end there either. Currently the following states allow the FBI access to its driver’s license database: Vermont, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Delaware.
Next you have the states currently negotiating with the FBI for access to their residents’ data: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, DC, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana.
Interestingly enough (considering many are Democrat-leaning), these states give the FBI no access to its citizens database: Washington(state), Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, California, Hawaii, Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Ohio, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire and New York.
The GAO put out a report, titled “FACE RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY: FBI Should Better Ensure Privacy and Accuracy,” the report was released almost two years after the FBI stated they went from pilot program to fully operational. The GAO’s report summarized the program as follows:
The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) operates the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS)—a face recognition service that allows law enforcement agencies to search a database of over 30 million photos to support criminal investigations. NGI-IPS users include the FBI and selected state and local law enforcement agencies, which can submit search requests to help identify an unknown person using, for example, a photo from a surveillance camera. When a state or local agency submits such a photo, NGI-IPS uses an automated process to return a list of 2 to 50 possible candidate photos from the database, depending on the user’s specification. As of December 2015, the FBI has agreements with seven states to search NGI-IPS and is working with more states to grant access. In addition to the NGI-IPS, the FBI has an internal unit called Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services that provides face recognition capabilities, among other things, to support active FBI investigations. FACE Services not only has access to NGI-IPS, but can search or request to search databases owned by the Departments of State and Defense and 16 states, which use their own face recognition systems. Biometric analysts manually review photos before returning at most the top 1 or 2 photos as investigative leads to FBI agents.
The report, which was provided to Congress in May of 2016, and released publicly in late June of 2016, faulted the FBI for being lax about privacy and the accuracy of the photos in its database. According to the GAO:
The FBI has entered into agreements to search and access external databases—including millions of U.S. citizens’ drivers’ license and passport photos—but until FBI officials can assure themselves that the data they receive from external partners are reasonably accurate and reliable, it is unclear whether such agreements are beneficial to the FBI and do not unnecessarily include photos of innocent people as investigative leads.
Although the report was only able to provide only a handful of examples of the FBI database actually solving a crime, they stated the database was used in investigations involving fraud, robberies, violent crime, and other such felonies. The GAO report noted a complaint filed by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 2012 about this billion-dollar program and stated:
Specifically, according to a July 2012 Electronic Frontier Foundation hearing statement, false positives can alter the traditional presumption of innocence in criminal cases by placing more of a burden on the defendant to show he is not who the system identifies him to be. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that this is true even if a face recognition system such as NGI-IPS provides several matches instead of one, because each of the potentially innocent individuals identified could be brought in for questioning. In addition, if false positives are returned at a higher than acceptable rate, law enforcement users may waste time and resources pursuing unnecessary investigative leads. By conducting tests to verify that NGI-IPS is sufficiently accurate for all allowable candidate list sizes—including ensuring that the detection and false positive rates are identified—the FBI would have reasonable assurance that NGI-IPS provides investigative leads that help enhance, rather than hinder or overly burden, criminal investigation work. Even more, the FBI would help ensure that it is sufficiently protecting the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. citizens enrolled in the database.
Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the EFF, blogged that “many of the 411.9 million face images to which FBI has access—like driver’s license and passport and visa photos—were never collected for criminal or national security purposes.”
Also noted was that facial recognition is a no crime-fighting solution. In fact, the facial recognition software has been found to be biased against blacks and provided absolutely no assistance when the manhunt for the Boston bombers was underway.
Of course the FBI, in its response to the GAO report, stated the bureau “has established practices that protect privacy and civil liberties beyond the requirements of the law. “The FBI fully recognizes that the automated nature of face recognition technology and the sheer number of photos now available for searching raise important privacy and civil liberties considerations. For that reason, the FBI has made privacy and civil liberties integral to every decision from the inception regarding its use of face recognition technology,” the bureau added.
Given the news lately regarding government spying on Americans, including the current President and the scandal involving Facebook and other outlets using algorithms, our phone numbers, our photos, our texts, etc., as a means to not only invade our privacy, but to sell our information to third-parties, and even to attacking our livelihoods (such as with Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to name a few). I have no confidence, no confidence at all that the FBI, Facebook, our state and local governments will use any of these technologies to “protect” us.
You can sit back and allow this with the excuse that it is for our own safety. There are some pros to these types of programs. For the most part, they are not for the greater good and they can and WILL be used to target conservatives, independents, republicans, and anyone not on board with the big government agenda. Of this you can be sure.
Benjamin Franklin once said: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. These words could not be truer today.