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Arnold Ahlert / October 24, 2016

Big Brother IS Watching

Technology has provided government with unprecedented data for exploitation.

According to a bombshell report published last Tuesday by Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, “Big Brother” is watching.

“The Perpetual Line-up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America,” reveals a staggering 117 million Americans are in face-recognition databases compiled by the FBI, along with state and local law enforcement organizations. Moreover, the report reveals this technology is “unregulated and in many instances out of control.”

How out of control? Law enforcement agencies are “not taking adequate steps to protect free speech,” are doing “little to ensure their systems are accurate,” have human backstop systems that are “non-standardized and overstated,” are “keeping critical information from the public,” and use major systems that “are not audited for misuse.”

Black Americans should be especially concerned. “In a Frequently Asked Questions document, the Seattle Police Department says that its face recognition system ‘does not see race,’” the report explains. “Yet an FBI co-authored study suggests that face recognition may be less accurate on black people.”

Currently, 16 states have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) granting the FBI blanket access to their databases, allowing it to compare the faces of suspected criminals to drivers’ licenses and/or ID photos. An additional 10 to 14 states allow the agency to “run or request searches” against the same databases, on a case by case basis. The study explains that, as a result of both direct and indirect access, “roughly one in two American adults has their photos searched this way.”

Last June, the Government Accountability Office released a report titled “FACE RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY: FBI Should Better Ensure Privacy and Accuracy.” It reveals the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS) gives the FBI access to 411.9 million images as part of its face-recognition database. That database includes 30 million mug shots, the aforementioned driver license photos, the State Department’s visa and passport database, and the biometric database maintained by the Defense Department. The report is apparently an update on the Sept. 15, 2014 announcement by the FBI that the system had achieved “full operational capability.”

As the Georgetown report reveals, full operational capability seemingly eviscerates the bedrock law enforcement concepts of reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause. “Historically, FBI fingerprint and DNA databases have been primarily or exclusively made up of information from criminal arrests or investigations,” it states. “By running face recognition searches against 16 states’ driver’s license photo databases, the FBI has built a biometric network that primarily includes law-abiding Americans. This is unprecedented and highly problematic.”

Not just drivers’ licenses. “Major police departments are exploring real-time face recognition on live surveillance camera video,” the report adds. “Real-time face recognition lets police continuously scan the faces of pedestrians walking by a street surveillance camera.” It further notes “at least five major police departments — including agencies in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles — either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology that can do so, or expressed a written interest in buying it.”

Georgetown’s report comes courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit organization whose mission is “defending civil liberties in the digital world.” It was EFF that filed a 2014 FOIA lawsuit against the FBI aimed at getting agency to release the data on the system. Rather than litigate, the FBI complied and released several documents describing a system that greatly enhanced the agency’s fingerprint database. The enhancements included iris scans, palm prints and the facial recognition system that is tied to a person’s name, address, age, race, driver’s license number, and other parameters. At that time it was estimated the database would contain approximately 52 million faces by the end of 2015.

Instead, the FBI more than doubled its goal. Moreover, the report reveals, “state and local police departments are building their own face recognition systems, many of them more advanced than the FBI’s.”

The report recommends several fixes. They include legislation to regulate the technology; requiring reasonable suspicion for a search; databases that “default” to mug shots, not IDs and licenses; court orders for usage; restricting usage to felony investigations; procurement guidance for state and local agencies; periodic scrubbing of databases to remove innocent people; and the expansion in scope and frequency of accuracy tests conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Nonetheless, despite chronicling examples of possible misuse that include a lack of accuracy, the aforementioned stifling of free speech, and secrecy surrounding the use of this technology (Ohio’s system “remained almost entirely unknown to the public for five years”), the Center insists law enforcement officials who employ this technology “are men and women of good faith. They do not want to invade our privacy or create a police state.”

For millions of Americans, the notion that law enforcement operates on good faith has been shattered by the contemptible machinations attached to the FBI and the DOJ and their sham investigations of the IRS’s targeting of conservatives and Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Both investigations precipitated government-initiated destruction of evidence.

That is not to say a majority, or even a sizable minority, of law enforcement officials at the federal, state or local level are corrupt. Nonetheless it is indisputable that this technology, along with other advances like black boxes in cars, provides government with an unprecedented amount of data that can easily be exploited on a massive scale by even a handful of unprincipled individuals.

Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Georgetown Center and co-author of the study, gets to the meat of the issue. “We have to ask ourselves, does that look like America: A world where everyone’s face is scanned as they walk on a sidewalk, a world where police can secretly identify people attending a protest just by taking a photo of them? We don’t think it does,” he asserts. Bedoya further notes the FBI has entered “uncharted and frankly dangerous territory.”

It’s not uncharted at all. In 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials enlisted local police officers to scan license plates of gun-show customers, despite a provision in the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act prohibiting the establishment of mass databases of American gun owners. Catching Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami was facilitated by “8,000 cameras added to New York streets since the September 11 terror attacks,” NBC News reported at the time. Thus in New York and other cities, one’s realistic expectations of privacy are confined to one’s home — give or take surveillance conducted via thermal imaging, audio amplification, or web-cam hacking.

“Without meaningful regulation, we’re moving into a world where governments and corporations will be able to identify people both in real time and backwards in time, remotely and in secret, without consent or recourse,” warns security technologist Bruce Schneier.

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from the “illegal search and seizure of person or property without a warrant or probable cause.” That right is being trampled by technology coupled with a contemptible zealotry that turns the bedrock concept of innocent until proven guilty completely on its head. Americans can either demand accountability, or surrender their right to privacy — to those who would willingly take it away.

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