HolidayBuyer's Guide

Police face-tracking network covers nearly half of US adults

The network is unprecedented, say privacy advocates, and could cause trouble for innocent citizens.

Critics say we need to open our eyes to police use of facial-recognition technology.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Using state driver's license data, US law enforcement agencies have created a huge network of ID photographs that can be searched using facial-recognition software, raising legal and privacy concerns about its use.

Photographs of more than 117 million adult US citizens are now part of the "perpetual line-up," according to a report by that name published Tuesday by the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center.

At least 26 states allow law enforcement to run searches in their databases of driver's license photos, the investigators said, with officers using software to match images captured by ATM cameras and other surveillance devices to the ID pictures.

The Georgetown report calls the network and its use "highly problematic" because of its potential to identify innocent citizens. Police departments often keep databases of fingerprints and DNA. But that data is typically collected from people who have been arrested, not the general public.

"It's uncharted and frankly dangerous territory," said Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law and co-author of the report.

A study co-authored by the FBI suggests facial-recognition technology may be least accurate when used to identify black people, women and those aged 18 to 30, the Georgetown report said.

"An accurate algorithm correctly identifies a face in an ATM photo and leads police to a robber's door," the report said. "An inaccurate algorithm sends them to the wrong house -- and could send an innocent person to jail."

With the driver's license network established, police departments nationwide are now using other ID photos. After the September bombing in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, the New York City Police Department used surveillance video to match suspect Ahmad Rahami's face to a US immigration photo database.

Sen. Al Franken, of Minnesota, said the Georgetown report raises concerns on how police are using facial- recognition technology, and he called on these programs to respect the balance between privacy and public safety.

Close
Drag