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Who’s watching the US DOJ’s use of facial recognition? Hint, the ACLU plays a part

Who’s watching the US DOJ’s use of facial recognition? Hint, the ACLU plays a part

Law enforcement agencies in several U.S. jurisdictions have engaged with the ACLU to formulate their policies for facial recognition use. This emerging pattern can be traced to advice from the federal Department of Justice and the publication of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015.

Since then, several city and state police departments, including Albuquerque; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Fresno, Calif.; Memphis; Newark, N.J.; New York; Ogden, Utah; St. Louis, Mo.; and, most recently, Little Rock, Ark.; have been able to establish Real Time Crime Centers (RTCCs) that provide insight on video surveillance.

The software includes computer vision AI capable of recognizing firearms, characters and faces. Interestingly, among the Justice department’s recommended seven standard operating procedures is a section outlining the need for RTCCs and law enforcement agencies to work with their community, citizen protection groups and local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to set policies on facial recognition use.

In 2020, the Justice Department published five principles for use of facial recognition. First, agencies should buy, develop and use facial recognition only in line with Constitutional protections, applicable federal laws and their own policies. Second, police should only share resources with other agencies that have similarly high standards and safeguards.

Police also should ensure that facial recognition is developed and used in a manner that minimizes inaccuracy and unfair biases. Fourth, officers should prioritize the security and quality of the data they use in connection with facial recognition systems.

Last, law enforcement agencies should continue to ensure human involvement in areas where the technology impacts fundamental rights and civil liberties. Yet in this case, there is no guidance on collaborating with the ACLU to develop policies for preventing misuse of facial recognition.

Meanwhile, some cities including San Francisco; Boston; Oakland, Calif.; and Portland, Ore.; have banned aspects of facial recognition use.

The ACLU is no stranger to this topic. It has successfully worked with law enforcement in the use of dash and body cameras to balance the behavior of officers during real-time incidents, traffic stops and investigations.

Moreover, a 2021 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office uncovered 42 federal law enforcement agencies that not all government leaders realized own and/or use more than 20 facial recognition systems. At least 14 agencies, according to the GAO, use commercial systems for a variety of large-scale security events such as domestic terrorism and riots as well as peaceful protests.

It is not clear if the Department of Justice knew the extent to which the federal government was deploying facial recognition and what oversight, if any, has been put in place.

The ACLU has not waited for Justice to enforce its own principles. In June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit after the Department of Homeland Security announced new measures to address domestic violent extremism. Officials created the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships. The program played up community outreach, but officials have said it did not do enough to prohibit the use of intelligence called “unconstrained” sources, which includes social media and surveillance to collect images of people.

The ACLU asserts that federal agencies including the FBI view American communities through a threat-based security lens, which has resulted in an unconstitutional focus on people of color as well as people doing attending religious services, schools and community events.

About the author

Carla Roncato is the Founder of Authora Research and Evangelist at the OpenID Foundation. Carla was previously the primary analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) covering identity and access management, data privacy, and zero trust security. She has been featured in Computer Weekly, SG Magazine, TechTarget, Wall Street Journal and a keynote speaker at Trend Micro CloudSec Conference and Open Banking Security Summit. Find Carla on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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