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Police in US cities that ban facial recognition asking others to do it for them

Investigation shows police ‘using but not saying they are using’ face biometrics
Police in US cities that ban facial recognition asking others to do it for them

A major report in the Washington Post has found that law enforcement officers in U.S. several cities where facial recognition tech is banned for police have asked neighboring forces to search face databases for them.

Facial recognition has been prohibited in San Francisco since 2019. But Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s former district attorney, sums up the problem: “Police are using it but not saying they are using it.” The Post says the SFPD have outsourced at least five attempts to make facial matches. Some of these were done by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), a “multi-jurisdiction program serving law enforcement agencies in the region.” Others were farmed out to the Daly City Police Department. None were successful.

Police in Austin, Texas, however – also among the biggest U.S. cities to ban facial recognition – recorded 13 requests to a neighboring department for assistance with biometric face matching, and some of these led to arrests. Austin city employees are barred from using facial recognition as well as “information obtained” from the technology, with certain exceptions. But the suburb of Leander, just a 30-minute drive north of Austin, has no such restriction.

Leander’s police force has access to Clearview AI, which has courted many law enforcement agencies in the U.S., despite lingering questions about whether its method of scraping the public internet for facial images is 100 percent consensual. According to the Post, the Leander force also has a recognized Clearview AI “influencer”: Officer David Wilson, who performed several searches for the Austin force via Leander’s Clearview account. Emails seen by the Post show that officers contacted Wilson directly for the express purpose of requesting facial recognition searches.

Clearview, to its credit, officially prohibits their clients in law enforcement from sharing access to accounts. Yet anyone with a Netflix subscription knows that formal rules only matter if they are enforced. Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That has publicly promised customers that Clearview will try and close the loophole that allows police to export results of facial scans, even if they cannot share access. But Wilson sent most of his facial recognition results to Austin via email.

KXAN reports that Austin city council gave a statement saying the city was unaware of the complaint regarding police outsourcing facial recognition, and that investigations are underway.

Accusations of bias come from both facial recognition critics and affronted police

According to the Security Industry Association, a total of 21 cities or counties in 11 states, plus the state of Vermont, have enacted bans on facial recognition tools for law enforcement. Several came in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, which set off a wave of demonstrations and pushes for police reform. In Jackson, Mississippi, facial recognition by police has been banned since 2020, following Floyd’s death. Councilors there cited privacy concerns, as well as “supercharged” discrimination, given that the technology “has been shown to programmatically misidentify people of color, women, and children” – notably, in a 2019 federal study.

The Post article says legal records show police use of facial recognition has led to the wrongful arrests of at least seven innocent Americans, six of whom are Black. Facial recognition searches are not presented as evidence in court and prosecutors in many places are not required to tell criminal defendants if they were identified using an algorithm.

The debate over facial recognition is nationwide, and unlikely to subside as AI becomes more prominent across society. The Detroit News reports that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has passed a resolution urging Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to form an AI task force “that regulates the use, acquisition and implementation of Artificial Intelligence in policing so as to eliminate the perpetuation of bias and discrimination.”

“Against the backdrop of our country’s documented bias in law enforcement, to ignore the historic prejudice in policing practices that have resulted in inherently biased data, statistics and actionable information is tantamount to an intentional decision to perpetuate racial, ethnic, and national origin discrimination,” the resolution says.

A response from Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, says the resolution is biased against police, and that he “can’t think of anything more ridiculous than to say police are intentionally trying to make certain racial groups look bad.”

Three of the six arrests of innocent Black people involving facial recognition in the U.S. occurred in Michigan.

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