Facial recognition technology ripe for abuse

By Aaron Rice
January 31, 2019

A network of cameras that could track people throughout a city 24 hours a day is open for misuse and misidentification.

A man is shopping with his family during the holidays at a crowded mall when a law enforcement team swoops in to arrest him, wrongly, as a wanted child predator. News of the arrest quickly passes through Twitter and becomes front page news.

A sheriff is concerned about a NAACP chapter that is critical of her. She begins to track members and have them arrested.

An innocent man is on trial for murder. The most important evidence is an incorrect facial recognition match between him and a video of the perpetrator caught on a home video camera. The match serves to shift the burden to the incorrectly identified man to prove he is not the person in the video.

These things will happen with facial recognition technology. The question is how often.

Sunday, January 13 brought two brutal murders in Jackson. One a slaying of a preacher as he entered his church. The other a shooting in a Wal-Mart parking lot at a busy time when families are present.

The two murders are continuations of a very worrisome trend in which Jackson’s murder rate is increasing when the rates in nearby cities are decreasing. They are part of a murder rate that is the highest Jackson has seen in over 20 years. The city had 92 homicides in 1994 and 1995, and 84 in 2018. But Jackson also had roughly 190,000 citizens in the mid-1990s, and today, after hemorrhaging citizens for decades, stands at approximately 166,865. We are killing more with less.

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba addressed the public after these Sunday murders. One of the crime-fighting methods he announced the city would pursue is a “Real Time Crime Center” that “will give us eyes into our community, so we can hopefully stop crime before it happens because we’re watching the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The center would rely on facial recognition technology used through a network of cameras that could track people throughout the city.

That certainly has the ring of Orwell’s 1984.

It is unclear if the mayor is serious about the city pursuing this technology, or whether his comments were more of an off-the-cuff variety that did not reflect an intentional and definitive policy direction. Understandably, the mayor would like to reassure the public that his administration is serious about the issue of violent crime.

However, facial recognition technology has the potential for misidentification and abuse. Both are obvious problems. If the city is serious about pursuing this technology, the problems associated with it must be addressed and the public needs to be fully engaged in the process – something that is not occurring around the nation as private companies are quietly attempting to sell these technologies to law enforcement agencies.

Early tests of the technology as it exists today (and it is constantly evolving) reveal significant misidentification issues. The ACLU Foundation of Northern California recently tested Amazon’s Rekognition software using its default settings. This mirrors how the technology is used by a sheriff’s department in Oregon. It compared every member of Congress with 25,000 mugshots, and falsely matched 28 members of Congress with mugshot images.

The test also revealed, as have other tests, that facial recognition technology is more likely to misidentify people of color. This is one of the reasons Brian Brackeen, who is CEO of the facial recognition firm Kairos and also is black, has been fighting against the use of the technology by law enforcement.

Abuse is harder to measure since the technology is not used in many places. We know from history that bad actors will periodically be in positions of power when the technology could be abused. We know that China is introducing the technology at a rapid pace and regularly reminds its citizens that the technology will make it virtually impossible to evade the state.

With these potential troubles in mind, it is perhaps time to hit the pause button and fully discuss this technology before using it. A technology’s availability, even its use by the private sector, does not mean it is something the government should use.

And this doesn’t address a more fundamental point. If Jackson wants to be serious about fighting crime, perhaps it should focus first on the easier-to-reach basics it is missing, like prosecuting cases in a timely manner, before reaching for Orwellian sounding technologies that promise magical abilities with great risks to civil liberties.

This column appeared in the Northside Sun on January 31, 2019. 


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