After the recent deluge of videos showing police abusing and sometimes flat-out murdering more-or-less innocent citizens, the willingness of a growing number of cities to equip officers with video cameras has been hailed as a victory by civil libertarians.
But what if those cameras also extend the surveillance network exponentially? In the future, if a policeman is facing you, he might be filming you. From there, all it will take is real-time facial recognition technology, and Big Brother will be walking the streets with eyes wide open.
Well, ask and you shall receive:
For years, the development of real-time face recognition has been hampered by poor video resolution, the angles of bodies in motion, and limited computing power. But as systems begin to transcend these technical barriers, they are also outpacing the development of policies to constrain them. Civil liberties advocates fear that the rise of real-time face recognition alongside the growing number of police body cameras creates the conditions for a perfect storm of mass surveillance.
“The main concern is that we’re already pretty far along in terms of having this real-time technology, and we already have the cameras,” said Jake Laperruque, a fellow at the Constitution Project. “These cameras are small, hard to notice, and all over the place. That’s a pretty lethal combination for privacy unless we have reasonable rules on how they can be used together.”
This imminent reality has led several civil liberties groups to call on police departments and legislators to implement clear policies on camera footage retention, biometrics, and privacy. On Wednesday morning, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology, where advocates emphasized the dangers of allowing advancements in real-time recognition to broaden surveillance powers. As Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, told Congress, pairing the technology with body cameras, in particular, “will redefine the nature of public spaces.”
The integration of real-time face recognition with body-worn cameras is further along than lawmakers and citizens realize. A recent Justice Department-funded survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that at least nine out of 38 manufacturers of body cameras currently have facial recognition capacities or have built in an option for such technology to be used later.
Taser, which leads the market for body cameras, recently acquired two startups that will allow it to run video analytics on the footage the cameras collect, and Taser’s CEO has repeatedly emphasized the development of real-time applications, such as scanning videos for faces, objects, and suspicious activity. A spokesperson for NTechLab, which has pilot projects in 20 countries including the United States, China, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, told The Intercept that its high-performing algorithm is already compatible with body cameras.
Police see the appeal. The captain of the Las Vegas Police Department told Bloomberg in July that he envisions his officers someday patrolling the Strip with “real-time analysis” on their body cameras and an earpiece to tell them, “‘Hey, that guy you just passed 20 feet ago has an outstanding warrant.’”
At least five U.S. police departments, including those in Los Angeles and New York, have already purchased or looked into purchasing real-time face recognition for their CCTV cameras, according to a study of face recognition technology published by Bedoya and other researchers at Georgetown. Bedoya emphasized that it’s only a matter of time until the nation’s body-worn cameras will be hooked up to real-time systems. With 6,000 of the country’s 18,000 police agencies estimated to be using body cameras, the pairing would translate into hundreds of thousands of new, mobile surveillance cameras.
“For many of these systems, the inclusion of real-time face recognition is just a software update away,” said Harlan Yu, co-author of a report on body camera policies for Upturn, a technology think tank.
Civil liberties experts warn that just walking down the street in a major urban center could turn into an automatic law enforcement interaction. With the ability to glean information at a distance, officers would not need to justify a particular interaction or find probable cause for a search, stop, or frisk. Instead, everybody walking past a given officer on his patrol could be subject to a “perpetual line-up,” as the Georgetown study put it. In Ferguson, Missouri, where a Justice Department investigation showed that more than three-quarters of the population had outstanding warrants, real-time face searches could give police immense power to essentially arrest individuals at will. And in a city like New York, which has over 100 officers per square mile and plans to equip each one of them with body cameras by 2019, the privacy implications of turning every beat cop into a surveillance camera are enormous.
“The inclusion of face recognition really changes the nature and purpose of body cameras, and it changes what communities expect when they call for and pay for cameras with taxpayer dollars,” Yu said. “I think there’s a real fear in communities of color, where officers are already concentrated, that these body-worn cameras will become another tool for surveillance rather than a tool for accountability.”
The above article has some chillingly surreal quotes, including: “real-time face recognition is just a software update away”; “everybody walking past a given officer on his patrol could be subject to a perpetual line-up,” and “more than three-quarters of the population had outstanding warrants.” It’s hard to overstate just how strange this emerging world of hyper-surveillance might be.
This genie will never be forced back into the lamp. Camera resolution will only improve, and face recognition algorithms will only grow more accurate. So if it’s not the police, it will be the security camera at 7-11 or the traffic cam at the stoplight on the way home. The resulting tidal wave of data will be matched by the exponentially rising competence of tomorrow’s artificial intelligences and expanding capacity of data storage centers. Toss in algorithms that can lip read and our expectation of privacy disappears the minute we walk out the door.
Asking governments to implement controls on what data is saved and how it’s analyzed is kind of naive, when you think about it. Of course the FBI, CIA, NSA, and local police agencies will quickly agree to whatever we ask – and will then do whatever they want in the privacy of their own labs.
Balanced against this emerging police state will be the increasing ease with which whistleblowers can expose abuses. See In The Police-State-Versus-Freedom Arms Race, Freedom Seems To Be Winning.
Still, it’s hard not to see this latest breakthrough as a win for the bad guys.