Recent advances in face recognition software have raised a host of complex questions for society as a whole, lawmakers, and law enforcement agencies. Photo databases are already in use by the FBI and other agencies to identify criminal suspects using mugshots and photos taken in the field during investigations. As body-worn cameras become more common for local law enforcement, experts anticipate that law enforcement will begin using face recognition software to rapidly identify individuals officers encounter in the field.
Current use of face recognition by law enforcement
The FBI has collected biometric and photographic information about criminal suspects for decades. This information is shared with authorized local agencies to assist them with investigations. Face recognition software improves the efficiency of law enforcement’s use of the information. The FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system includes an Interstate Photo System (IPS), which automatically searches a database of mugshots and identifies potential matches.
The NGI-IPS system is intended to be an investigative tool for helping officers more efficiently identify suspects. Because “false positives” are still a likely possibility, officers still must manually review the results and use other investigative tools to verify their accuracy. As a consequence, FBI policy dictates that the results of NGI-IPS searches are not to be used for positive identification. In other words, they cannot be used to justify a search warrant or other law enforcement actions.
The near-future of face recognition technology
Face recognition software is rapidly improving. Its algorithms use a wide range of facial features to find potential matches, increasingly allowing it to make positive matches even if the individual’s face has changed from the database photo. For example, a suspect who has grown a beard or gotten a tattoo can still be identified despite those changes.
In the law enforcement context face recognition technology will become increasingly useful for helping officers identify suspects and other potentially dangerous individuals. High-definition cameras, especially when body-worn, will be an important component of this process. At the same time, we can expect a continuing conversation about how to best balance the civil liberties of the public with the technology’s legitimate law enforcement uses.
Privacy concerns pose a special challenge for policymakers. In Las Vegas casinos have been using face recognition software to identify people on their blacklists for several years. In theory, an individual’s every move through public spaces could be automatically tracked, regardless of whether or not the individual is a criminal suspect. Coming to grips with the full implications of this possibility will be an ongoing process.
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