Time To Draw The Line On Facial Recognition

Time To Draw The Line On Facial Recognition

As the faces of more Montanans are logged in government facial recognition systems, lawmakers need to be looking at how to better protect our privacy.

If you recently signed up for unemployment benefits or renewed your Montana driver’s license, your face is being logged into a facial recognition database and could be scanned countless times by government officials hoping to match you against a criminal suspect.

Being cataloged and searched in government databases might sound dystopic, but it’s reality today in Montana. Facial recognition is increasingly being used as a tool to make government more efficient — assisting law enforcement investigations and rooting out identity fraud. But without proper public knowledge and oversight, this powerful technology can be abused, threatening the privacy and security of law-abiding Montanans.

When Montana’s Unemployment Insurance Division launched its facial recognition program in late 2020, instances of identity theft dropped from 3,200 to single digits in a matter of months. Simply requiring applicants to upload a “selfie” to be verified with facial recognition prior to receiving benefits ended up being a huge win for taxpayers, protecting against fraudulent payments and saving numerous staff hours.

But here’s the catch: the facial recognition vendor used by the Unemployment Division shares users’ biometric information in response to government requests. Nothing appears to be stopping the FBI or another law enforcement entity from requesting a scan of every Montanan who has applied for unemployment benefits, whether they each are individually suspected of a crime or not. To make matters worse, the vendor stores users’ selfies in its private database for up to seven years, long after an individual may have applied for the program.

Montana’s Department of Motor Vehicles uses a facial recognition system in a similar manner to catch identity fraud. But after your driver’s license is logged in their system, your face is automatically shared with a national law enforcement data clearinghouse. This clearinghouse is quickly developing capabilities to allow law enforcement anywhere in the country to run a facial recognition scan against the entire driver’s license database, looking for a match to a criminal suspect.

If officials went door to door to scan the face of every citizen when investigating a crime, Montanans would rightfully be outraged about such intrusive government actions. But that’s functionally what happens when facial recognition searches are used by law enforcement to scan everyone in civilian databases. Even worse, Montanans in these databases would have no knowledge they were subject to a facial recognition search.

Mass law enforcement searches pose a threat to our freedoms and new facial recognition capabilities make them easier than ever. Police in Florida have used facial recognition surveillance to identify and catalogue peaceful protestors, potentially making people think twice before exercising their right to free speech again. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the technology could be used to create databases of gun rights advocates, parental rights advocates, or pro-choice advocates.

While some law enforcement entities have adopted internal limits on mass searches, Montana officials readily admit that it’s basically the Wild West when it comes to using facial recognition.

As the faces of more Montanans are logged in government facial recognition systems, lawmakers need to be looking at how to better protect our privacy. Lawmakers should consider establishing a transparent, uniform standard for how law enforcement can use facial recognition in Montana. This standard should require that criminal facial recognition searches abide by constitutional standards of particularized suspicion. The standard should also protect law-abiding Montanans in government databases from mass criminal searches.

Montana often leads the way on privacy efforts, and lawmakers have the opportunity now to get ahead of the curve on facial recognition before it’s too late.


This article originally appeared in Lee Newspapers

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