EFF Internship Week 2: Facial Recognition and Privacy

[Ed: This is the second in a series of posts by Natasha Duarte, who is blogging about her summer internship experience at EFF.] This week I researched how state law enforcement agencies use facial recognition software to track individuals. I’m helping EFF prepare public records requests to gather more information on the facial recognition and biometric tracking programs being deployed throughout the United States.

If you’ve ever had your picture taken for a driver’s license or other photo ID, your face is probably in a database used by the DMV, state law enforcement agencies, and the FBI for almost limitless tracking purposes.  Some agencies use mobile systems in the field to detect a person’s facial measurements, fingerprints, and other biometrics. The system automatically scans a database and matches the person’s face with any other information the government has access to.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is reportedly developing systems that will scan crowds in stadiums or other areas, matching faces in the crowd with these extensive databases. While it might help track criminal suspects, the curre

nt technology is susceptible to mismatches, and the databases include photos of individuals who have never been arrested, charged, or convicted.

Despite its dangerous privacy implications, the use of facial recognition technology by the government remains unregulated. In Arizona, facial recognition systems developed to find “terrorists” reportedly have been used to track protestors associated with the Occupy movement and to do instant immigration background checks at traffic stops.

But the most detailed facial recognition database is not the FBI’s—it’s Facebook’s. Facebook already uses facial recognition software (that’s how it knows whom to tag when you upload a photo). Some proponents of facial recognition programs have suggested that the government should incorporate social network photos into its databases. Unlike most frontal driver’s license photos, Facebook photos reveal what a person looks like from different angles, how tall she is, how she dresses, whom she hangs out with, and where she hangs out. Facebook has not indicated that it would cooperate with requests to search its database, but access to social network data could be a powerful and dangerous tool for law enforcement.

Living in San Francisco:


Dancers in a parade at Carnaval, an annual Latin American and Caribbean festival that takes place in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Dancers in a parade at Carnaval, an annual Latin American and Caribbean festival that takes place in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Carnaval, a Latin American and Caribbean festival, took place in my neighborhood last weekend. I love how many different cultures intersect in San Francisco, especially in the Mission District. Here’s a photo I took of some of the dancers in the Carnaval parade.

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