Facial Recognition

Proposed Local Facial Recognition Technology Ban Draws Fire

Protecting citizens from intrusive government surveillance is a virtue well worth signaling.


Around 20 different state and local governments have so far banned some uses of facial recognition technologies by law enforcement. The Town of Hamden (population around 61,000) in Connecticut is considering joining those jurisdictions by adopting an ordinance that would prohibit all town officials from obtaining, retaining, accessing or using "any facial recognition system or any information obtained from a facial recognition system."

The proposed ordinance prompted the Washington, D.C.-based Information Technology Innovation Foundation (ITIF) think tank to issue a press release opposing the ban and accusing the town council of "virtue signaling" and suggesting that the ordinance "might accidentally ban its local officials from using iPhones." The proposed Hamden ordinance appears to be a somewhat truncated version of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Northern California model facial recognition ban ordinance.

The ITIF has a minor point that Hamden's inartfully crafted proposed ordinance could be interpreted as banning such security features such as the iPhone's facial recognition unlocking technology. However, that specific issue could easily be fixed if the city council members simply looked a bit further north and modeled their prohibition on Boston's facial surveillance technology ban ordinance. That ordinance explicitly makes exceptions for personal authentication technologies such as iPhone facial recognition.

Of course, the ITIF is actually against banning the government use of facial recognition technologies. The think tank is correct that facial recognition could be quite useful in helping police to verify people's identities (they are who they say they are) by matching a current scan of their faces with previously taken photos or identify an unknown person by comparing his or her photo with a database of known faces.

The ITIF is also correct that the accuracy of many facial recognition systems has greatly improved. That is all very well, but that's not the major concern of ban proponents.

The real worry behind the bans is the amassing of vast databases of face prints that could enable pervasive real time video tracking of citizens as they visit their doctors, attend religious services, engage in private sexual activity, and participate in political meetings, gatherings, and protests. The proposed ordinance explicitly finds "that facial recognition poses unique and significant civil rights and civil liberties threats to the residents and visitors of the Town of Hamden" and that "the public use of facial recognition can chill the exercise of constitutionality protected free speech."

Many privacy advocacy groups concur with these findings. "Face surveillance is profoundly dangerous for many reasons," argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)  in its letter supporting the Boston ordinance.  The letter continues:

First, it invades our privacy, by tracking a unique marker we show everywhere we go and cannot change: our own faces. Surveillance cameras in public spaces are proliferating, operated by myriad government and private entities. These cameras are increasingly networked into unified systems. Face surveillance technologies are growing increasingly powerful. In combination, these technologies can track everyone who lives and works in public. We must not build an infrastructure that empowers government to easily track where everyone is going, what they are doing, and who they are with.

The EFF letter further notes that "once government builds a face surveillance infrastructure, there is the inherent risk that thieves will steal its sensitive data, employees will misuse it, and policy makers will redeploy it in new unforeseen manners. Thus, face surveillance is so dangerous that governments must not use it at all."

State and local officials are not alone in their worries about the massive risks to privacy posed by facial surveillance technologies. In June, a group of congressional Democrats re-introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2021. That Act would make it "unlawful for any Federal agency or Federal official, in an official capacity, to acquire, possess, access, or use in the United States—(1) any biometric surveillance system; or (2) information derived from a biometric surveillance system operated by another entity."

Protecting citizens from intrusive government surveillance is a virtue well worth signaling.

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  1. Just farm it out to Facebook or Google.


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    2. OMG FaceBook and Google so BIG! Mah Freedoms!

      GOVERNMENT is several orders of magnitude BIGGER than them, and has centuries of documented abuse, oppression, and mass murder against people, so let have GOVERNMENT be in charge of FaceBook and Google!

      Gosh, there’s no problem with a Big Business that a BIGGER GOVERNMENT can’t solve!

    3. Didn’t bother to read the “or (2) information derived from a biometric surveillance system operated by another entity” clause?

      What you consent to do with a private company is your choice. You may not like the choices the company gives you (“any color as long as it’s black”) but at least it’s some choice. Government use is fundamentally different because we are not allowed to refuse consent.

      1. Didn’t bother to understand what you read? Clearly.

        If a private company is gathering information using biometric surveillance, no problem.

        “Hey! Hey!!! We did not “derive” anything! They volunteered this information! Nothing can stop a private company for volunteering information to the government! Right? Otherwise, anonymous tips would be illegal! Is that what you are saying? Private persons cannot cooperate voluntarily with the government? COME ON! COMMON SENSE.”

  2. “intrusive government”

    The question is what constitutes intrusive when there is no mention of rights violation.
    Whatever Reason decides ?

    Reason has failed to address public property rights in a consistent fashion which is probably where the solution exists.

    My guess is that Reason is not prepared to do that in a logical fashion as it supports the concept of public property under a coercive monopoly state.

  3. Wouldn’t they be better off by bringing consistency to government agencies, and refusing to allow any use or storage of identifying data?
    You know, make everything like voting, no id required.
    No driver license photos, no id to fly or open a checking account, no age checks for strip clubs or brothels (this one for ENB).

    1. Checking account is a private company thing. Really. Being able to ID the holder of the account is extremely important… for the holder of the account.

      The rest? Well, you’re right on. Gov’t ID, government laws, government rules, and government run programs like Voting.

  4. So banning local government subunits from using facial recognition is good, but banning local government subunits from mandating mask usage is bad for freedom.

    Seriously: fuck off and die everyone who works for Reason

  5. The imminent collapse of China’s biggest property developer (and financer) may be the scariest thing to happen since the pandemic–as far as our domestic economy is concerned.

    It took the market about a year for Wall Street to fully digest the importance of New Century collapsing in July of 2007–the subprime mortgage crisis didn’t really hit the markets until the summer of 2008.

    All indications are that the Chinese government will make the consumers who bought homes that will never be built whole, but the banks and financial institutions that were holding that debt are likely to be left to twist in the wind. If the impact of that isn’t big enough on the world economy, it’s unclear whether the Chinese government will still be willing and able take our debt as it rolls over in coming years–after they bail out however many hundreds of millions of home buyers.

    I don’t know the future, but it’s probably an especially terrible time to be a speculator in the stock market–rather than an investor. It’s always a good time to be in something, but if you’re in something and you don’t know why (maybe the “greater fool” theory?), you should probably figure out a better reason right about now.

    Oh, and it’s an especially terrible time to be looking at raising the debt ceiling or spending another $3.5 trillion we don’t have, too.

    We’re the wicked world marching our way to hell.


    1. Wrong thread.


  6. Facial recognition technology doesn’t work on people who wear masks.

    1. Actually, it does. Or at least, it can – depending on the specific software and the algorithms used. What we commonly call “facial” recognition is often a broader ‘body recognition’. Some of the more advanced solutions go beyond mere static images to things like gait recognition.

      That said, there are specific patterns that can be printed on masks (and/or your clothing) that make the recognition algorithms work a lot harder. For example, having a mask with someone else’s face printed on it.

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