June 3, 2021
Civil Rights Concerns Regarding Law Enforcement Use of Face Recognition Technology
Across the country, local, state, and federal law enforcement and immigration agencies use face recognition systems to identify, track, and target individuals. More than half of all U.S. adults are already in face recognition databases used for criminal investigations. This technology dramatically expands law enforcement’s power and poses severe threats to everyone’s safety, wellbeing, and freedoms of expression and association—but especially for Black and Brown communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities, Indigenous communities, and other people historically and currently marginalized and targeted by policing.
Much of the public debate has focused on the alarming inaccuracy of face recognition systems, particularly on women and people with darker skin. In at least three cases that are publicly known, police have relied on erroneous face recognition identifications to make wrongful arrests of Black men, underscoring the dangerous nature of this technology in the hands of law enforcement.
But improvements in the technology’s accuracy will not address the fundamental problem: face recognition expands the scope and power of law enforcement, an institution that has a long and documented history of racial discrimination and racial violence that continues to this day. In the context of policing, face recognition is always dangerous—no matter its accuracy. Throughout our nation’s history, law enforcement has used surveillance to silence dissent and to maintain white supremacy, from slave patrols to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Face recognition and other modern surveillance technologies promise to continue a history that has shown itself to be incompatible with the freedoms and rights of Black and Brown communities.