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More calls to investigate facial recognition technology



A group of U.S. legislators have called on the Government Accountability Office to examine and evaluate commercial and law enforcement use of facial recognition technologies.

“Given the recent advances in commercial facial recognition technology – and its expanded use by state, local, and federal law enforcement, particularly the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – we ask that you investigate and evaluate the facial recognition industry and its government use,” they wrote in a letter sent to the sent to the GAO this week.

The letter (PDF) was signed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sens. Ron Wyden, Chris Coons, Ed Markey and Cory Booker.

They also asked the GAO to examine what safeguards privacy companies and law enforcement agencies have in place to prevent misuse of facial recognition technology, including targeting people based on race, gender or age. “These technologies raise serious concerns about individual privacy rights and the disparate treatment of minority and immigrant communities within the U.S.,” they wrote.

The Congressional Black Caucus recently sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a letter (PDF) expressing concerns with the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement shortly after the ACLU and other privacy groups touched off a controversy about the use of Rekognition by U.S. police.

Microsoft President Brad Smith recently urged U.S. legislators to explore and apply rules to the technology but SensibleVision CEO George Brostoff criticized that decision, saying that the specific modality being used is not the most appropriate criteria for applying government regulation to biometrics.

Growing concerns in the UK

A white paper authored by a UK-based cyberlaw academic says that an independent review of how the UK implements CCTV analytics technology is the only way forward if such technology is to be used legitimately to tackle crime and terrorism without alienating the public.

Andrew Charlesworth, Professor of Law, Innovation & Society at the University of Bristol noted that the law is lagging well behind developments in surveillance technologies like automated facial recognition, which is already deployed in some areas of the UK and currently the subject of two court cases.

Charlesworth highlights the recently published Home Office Biometrics Strategy as an example of the Government’s reluctance to grasp the regulatory nettle and provide a detailed strategy. The document continues to draw criticism for its proposed expansion of the technology’s use without corresponding proposals for controls and oversight.

Charlesworth believes technology is both the problem and the solution. “The issue with the use of facial recognition technology is the systems which underlie it, such as police databases,” he explains. “We need to design the actual technology so that it controls the flow of data and how it is stored and deleted. This should be reliable, transparent and in full compliance with data protection legislation, because images are just another form of personal data. In my opinion, this is crucial if analytic technologies are to be accepted by the public as legitimate security tools which will help to keep them safe without breaching their human rights.”

“Right now we are seeing case after case of biometric technology being used as the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Government is too timid to say that biometrics is a positive thing if used in the right way, and so the debate is being brought to the public’s attention by campaign groups who for obvious reasons aren’t looking to present the full picture,” adds James Wickes, CEO and co-founder of cloud-based visual surveillance specialists Cloudview.

“The public are rightly reluctant to hand over their digital data, but the solution is not to ban the technology but to ensure that it’s used properly. This means limiting use to where it’s genuinely needed, and then having effective processes such as privacy impact assessments which are designed into the technology and properly tested, so that our democratic freedoms and human rights aren’t abused.”

The white paper is available at the Cloudview website.

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