NPR explores U.S. law enforcement interest in real-time facial recognition

With improvements in facial recognition technology delivering the promise of real-time identification, and a lack of legislative guidance on its use, law enforcement officials in the U.S. are faced with the dilemma of determining whether it will make their communities safer, and if it would do so at the expense of privacy, according to an examination by NPR.

The systems are being extensively tested or implemented in China and the UK. UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter told NPR that regulation is a year or two behind the technology, which is long enough for bad practices to become embedded.

Los Angeles County, which has one of the country’s most recently-updated facial recognition systems, does not have real-time capabilities, and Lt. Derek Sabatini of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a manager for its Regional Identification System, says it is not about to follow the UK and China in testing them out.

“We don’t want to do anything that the public doesn’t want us to do,” he told NPR. “Me, personally — I value personal privacy.”

Clare Garvie of Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology says “Every major company that sells to law enforcement in the U.S., advertises the ability to do real-time. And we’ve seen a fair amount of interest on the part of law enforcement in purchasing these systems.” She also says that U.S. police departments have sought grants to buy or test real-time facial verification systems.

NEC America Vice President of Federal Operations Benji Hutchinson confirms the interest.

“I can’t say which ones, but it’s been the large cities that you might imagine. It’s some of the large coastal areas,” Hutchinson says. “Some of those cities have expressed interest because they want to manage crime more effectively, or they want to manage counter-terrorism efforts.”

Hutchinson says camera systems would have to be upgraded to deploy the technology, and that methods could be developed to obfuscate or blur out the faces of non-suspects.

Experts interviewed by NPR warn that increasing use of real-time facial recognition in private settings could change the public’s expectations of privacy enough to prevent U.S. courts from limiting its use.

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