Controversy Brews Over Police Use of New Facial Recognition App

By Kevin Hogan

NEW YORK—An application that can identify suspects using facial recognition is now available to law enforcement agencies across the country. There is growing controversy over the use of this software because it compiles pictures from public social media accounts and other websites for its database, according to the New York Times.

But some are arguing that whether or not law enforcement can use the technology shouldn’t be made by a private company and a police commissioner, but instead should be up to the congress.

It “needs to be decided at the societal level,” says Columbia University professor Steven Bellovin. “At the very least, no police department should be able to use such technology without the explicit consent of the relevant legislative body.”

“You go to a party, somebody else takes a picture and puts it up on Instagram, Facebook, what have you,” Bellovin told NTD, suggesting that it can be easy for false accounts to be made with real photos. “They can scrape it and there’s your name.”

This type of photo scrapping to be used for facial recognition is a violation of Twitter’s terms of service, for example. However, in 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (pdf) that violating a website’s terms of service is not a crime, at least not on the West Coast.

“I would frankly be happier if there were a consensus or even a judicial ruling that this was an unconstitutional incursion on personal privacy,” Bellovin said.

And while there doesn’t seem to be any laws addressing the use of the application, the attorney general of the state of New Jersey outright banned it on Friday.

Usually police will compare footage from security cameras to a database of legally possessed arrest photos to identify a suspect, but the company that owns the app, Clearview AI, goes beyond that and uses people’s social media photos.

Clearview says the app can help identify child molesters, murderers, and suspected terrorists, and police from Canada and New Jersey have praised the technology’s effectiveness.

But Bellovin says it is better to accept an increase in unsolved crimes—so as to protect privacy from a potentially overbearing police force.

“No, we are not going to let law enforcement have unbridled power, we are going to put restrictions on them. This is a conscious trade off we are making,” said Bellovin.

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