IBM's decision last week to stop selling facial recognition technology to police agencies, and Amazon's subsequent announcement of a one-year moratorium on such sales, have put a needed spotlight on this issue. Facial recognition technology holds promise for legitimate crime fighting. But a well-established technical problem with correctly recognizing people of color — along with concerns that the technology could be abused by police — makes strict federal controls crucial going forward.
Facial recognition technology is exactly what it sounds like: technology that recognizes faces in images and, using facial patterns, matches them with faces in other images — criminal mug shots, driver's license databases, even pictures of crowds. It's what allows your Facebook page, for example, to show what photos you or people you know are in.
There are legitimate law enforcement applications, such as finding missing children, tracking down criminal suspects who are at large, or identifying suspects in custody who refuse to divulge their identities. Police used it to identify the arrested suspect in the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2018.
The problem with law enforcement applications is twofold: One, the technology has a well-documented accuracy problem in matching the faces of African Americans, particularly black women, opening the possibility of misidentifying someone as a criminal suspect. And, two, there are no federal restrictions on how police might use the technology — say, taking photos of a peaceful protest, then using a facial recognition program to get names, addresses and other identifying information on the participants. Both lapses are unacceptable.
IBM recognized that fact in its announcement June 8 that it is halting all sales of the technology to police agencies. In a letter to Congress, IBM's chief executive warned of the potential that the technology could be used to violate "basic human rights and freedoms," and that it's time for "a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies."
Amazon's subsequent announcement of a one-year moratorium on sales was more vague but appears to be grounded in the same concerns. That said, why set an arbitrary one-year time frame, instead of pegging it to the passage of acceptable federal regulations?
No one wants to hobble police from finding a lost child or tracking down a murderer, and there are ways to empower those uses of the technology while safeguarding against its abuse. Currently, police who want to tap a suspect's phone as part of a legitimate criminal investigation, for example, need a court order specifying the justification, and then they must adhere to statutory restrictions.
The sooner federal legislation creates that kind of framework for facial recognition technology — and the sooner its makers can solve the technical problems that could ensnare innocent people — the sooner society can feel secure in allowing use of this helpful but potentially dangerous tool to be returned to police use.
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