Facial Recognition

Is Facial Recognition the New Fingerprinting—or Something Much Worse?

State DMVs are building a vast national digital identification database for federal law enforcement.


Federal law enforcement agencies have been using facial recognition technology to mine state driver's license databases for information, reports the Washington Post. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) simply email requests to state departments of motor vehicle registration, asking them to match suspects' faces with those collected and stored in their driver's license databases. Generally speaking, state bureaucrats have been happy to cooperate.

The Government Accountability Office recently revealed that the FBI can scan about 640 million pictures, including not just mugshots but driver's licenses and passport photos. At a congressional oversight committee hearing last month, Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio) observed that many state's DMVs "have just given access to that to the FBI. No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver's license, got their driver's licenses. They didn't sign any waiver saying, 'Oh, it's OK to turn my information, my photo, over to the FBI.' No elected officials voted for that to happen."

Well, maybe not, but compliance with federal Real ID requirements essentially means that state DMVs have been building a national digital identification database for federal law enforcement.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be searched.

The vast majority of photos that the FBI, TSA, and ICE have been accessing depict Americans who have never been charged with a crime. Yet each time those agencies conduct a facial recognition search, all those Americans are treated as a suspect in the specific crimes that are under investigation.

Of course, much the same thing could be said of the FBI's fingerprint database, since nearly half of the records on file there are from non-criminal civilians. That database contains 145 million fingerprint records, including 77 million criminal suspect, 65 million non-criminal civil, and 3 million Repository for Individuals of Special Concern records. And the courts haven't objected to police searching those without anything like a warrant. So—keeping firmly in mind that I am not any sort of legal scholar—it seems likely to me that court precedents allowing police access to fingerprint databases will be applied to querying these growing faceprint databases.

The one area where we might be able to hold the line against a metastasizing surveillance state is to prohibit law enforcement use of real-time facial recognition technologies. Deploying such tech would essentially turn our faces into ID cards on permanent display to the police.

NEXT: Justin Amash on His Break from the GOP: It's Not (Just) About Trump

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  1. The false positives are the biggest problem. If even 1 out of 1000 is a false positive, that’s 640,000 pictures which require a further search every single time they get a picture to match. Of course, they can narrow that down some with race, gender, age. But it will still be thousands of false positives.

    And all against a likely -zero- real matches. Even if one of them is the guy they want, that’s it — one possible match out of thousands, more likely zero.

    As for banning facial recognition, there’s a libertarian perspective on how well prohibitions work, and it’s universal, not limited to booze and pot and guns. Ban cops using it directly, they’ll just outsource it, they’ll generate bogus 1-800 tips with hefty rewards, they’ll find ways around it.

    I’d rather have cops wasting their time searching through those 640,000 false positives and paying out the wazoo for all the resultant bungled SWAT raids which will piss people off enough to maybe do something real about over-coppage.

    1. As for banning facial recognition, there’s a libertarian perspective on how well prohibitions work, and it’s universal, not limited to booze and pot and guns.

      This is a good point which can’t be said enough. Getting a pinky-promise that the government won’t use a technological solution which exists is futile. They’ll either use it out in the open, or they’ll use it in the dark. Like drugs and prostitution, which would you prefer?

      1. You can also compare banning tech (such as facial recognition) to requiring tech (such as body cams). Look how many ways they have of disabling their cameras — dead batteries, forgot to turn it on, it broke during the fight, it was backwards … on and on it goes. And no reprimands, no suspensions, not even a slap on the wrist.

        1. And now they’ve got Black Lives Matter on their side. When the police union and BLM agree on something, you know it ain’t good.

      2. …and as Chuck Schumer said, something like “you fuck with the intelligence agencies, they’ve got six ways from Sunday to screw you…” Paraphrasing, but we all know how it goes.

  2. I wonder if that special paint for license plates works on faces.

  3. and 3 million Repository for Individuals of Special Concern records

    And how many of those are Crusty?

    1. None of the false positives!

      1. And God, your fuck buddy has started in with the tired crusty jokes now that he’s back shitting up threads.

        1. I’m more confused than ever.

          Is I a sock puppet of Chipper Morning Wood now (or vice versa)?

          Is I God, and I have a fuck buddy?

  4. “”The Government Accountability Office recently revealed that the FBI can scan about 640 million pictures, including not just mugshots but driver’s licenses and passport photos.””

    What the odds they are allowed to scan FaceBook photos upon proper request?

    1. Considering you can scan them without request, I suspect the odds are very good.

      1. Well I can scan only the ones I have permission to scan via people’s privacy controls, and I’m doing it one by one with my eyes. I don’t think law enforcement has those issues.

  5. We had to get both – facial scan and fingerprints – returning from France.

    1. So stay out of France.

  6. How about a requirement that all federal, state, and local workers be added to the pool? All law enforcement? Just for elimination purposes, of course. Who could complain about that?

    1. They already have driver licenses.

  7. Surely facial recognition is in better shape than DNA testing. I mean now DNA analysis cannot even tell men from women.

    1. DNA testing does have a false positive rate. Also there have been cases of forensic labs fudging results of various tests.

  8. How ’bout if we pass a constitutional amendment that says the police have to present evidence of suspicion of a crime to a judge before they can get a warrant to seize information about a suspect without their consent? Oh…nevermind.

  9. Answer: it doesn’t matter. Technology doesn’t go backwards. You can’t wish it away.

    You have to reform the institutions you don’t trust, because you can’t keep them from using this technology.

    1. Ben….Yeah, the damage has been done. There is no going back. I am quite certain that a governmental agency (more than one, actually) has already uploaded those images from public and private sources and compiled them into a tagged, searchable database.

      I mean the alternative is going ‘a-digital’ which means no licenses, no registrations, no email, no going in public, no social media at all. Seems impossible to do.

  10. The funny thing about facial recantation is it should get a lot of false positives. One of the reasons we use fingerprinting is two complete strangers can look exactly the same. Their a famous case where the police arrested a man wanted for a crime and when they telegraph that caught the guy in the wanted poster that got a telegraph back telling them they already caught the guy.

  11. Big sun hats, oversized sunglasses, and bandanas and scarves protect you from the sun. Wear ’em. Also, I’m really liking war paint and facial decals. Big American flags spaced unevenly on both cheeks should do the trick. Let’s quit being the boring folks we usually are, and instead …. really get with FFFR.

    (FFFR: Fooling Fucking Facial Recognition)

  12. […] information “should concern every American.”  He linked a fantastic story published on Reason.com. The article lays out the arguments and reveals the extent of what federal law enforcement can […]

  13. […] “should concern every American.”  He linked a fantastic story published on Reason.com. The article lays out the arguments and reveals the extent of what federal law enforcement can […]

  14. OT:
    “Federal court: Trump can’t ban critics from Twitter account”
    “NEW YORK — President Donald Trump can’t ban critics from his Twitter account, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday, saying the First Amendment calls for more speech, rather than less, on matters of public concern.
    The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan upheld a lower court judge who said Trump violates the Constitution when he blocks critics….”

    Are they going to assign someone to make sure he reads them? Are they going to remove the “delete” key from his keyboard?

  15. Facial recognition is the new toy of Big Brother.
    So let’s all get on board and smile to the cameras as The State continues to whittle away what little freedom and privacy we have left.

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