LANSING, Mich. (Oct. 15, 2019) – A Michigan Senate committee amended a bill that would have banned law enforcement use of facial recognition, effectively stripping it of most of its practical effect.
Sen. Peter Lucido (R) introduced Senate Bill 342 (SB342) on May 22. As introduced, the legislation would have prohibited law enforcement officials from obtaining, accessing or using any facial recognition technology, along with any information gathered from such technology. Any information obtained in violation of the law would have been inadmissible in court “as if the evidence, arrest warrant, or search warrant was obtained in violation of Amendment IV of the Constitution of the United States and section 11 of Article I of the state constitution of 1963.” In effect, the introduced version would have imposed a total ban on the use of facial recognition technology by Michigan law enforcement.
On Oct. 8, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety passed an amended version of the bill by a 6-1 vote. With the amendment, the ban only applies “real-time” facial recognition. In effect, this would prohibit police from running facial recognition with “the constant scanning of live video feeds.” It would bar police from “instantaneously matching moving faces with a database of still images.”
While this would take a small step forward, it would still allow police to continue using facial recognition with no restriction or oversight in most situations. Law enforcement will still be able to pull footage from cameras and then run it against facial recognition – just not in real-time.
The Detroit mayor recently tried to deflect criticism of that city’s facial recognition program claiming, “Let me be clear: there will be no facial recognition software used with live stream video by the (Detroit Police Department). That’s not what we’re doing, and that’s not ever what was intended.” As the Detroit Free Press interpreted the tweet and a subsequent video, the mayor was attempting to “shut down any notion that the department was using facial recognition software, a technology which has been widely criticized for issues ranging from privacy overreach to high-error rates, specifically when used on black and brown individuals.”
If you carefully read what the mayor said, you will realize he never claimed the police department wasn’t using facial recognition at all. He just said it wasn’t using it on “live stream video.” In other words, police aren’t running facial recognition in real-time. But they are using the technology on still images plucked from reams of footage collected by cameras all around the city. As Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center senior policy analyst Daniel Lawrence told the Detriot Free Press, this is a difference without any real distinction.
“In all my experience with facial recognition, the way the process and programming works is that it takes a still image from the video. I’m not knowledgeable of any facial recognition software that’s taking real video. It’s taking a still from a video.”
In other words, SB342, as amended, will do little to stop facial recognition as it is currently being used in Michigan. It will merely ban a practice that apparently isn’t being pursued, at least not in the state’s biggest city. While it is important to prohibit real-time use of facial recognition (some cities in other states have expressed interest in such systems), it is only a small step forward. If passed, SB342 will leave most, if not all, facial recognition programs in Michigan fully operational.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
A recent report revealed that the federal government has turned state drivers’ license photos into a giant facial recognition database, putting virtually every driver in America in a perpetual electronic police lineup. The revelations generated widespread outrage, but this story isn’t new. The federal government has been developing a massive, nationwide facial recognition system for years.
The FBI rolled out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, with the goal of building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends.
In 2016, the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law released “The Perpetual Lineup,” a massive report on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. You can read the complete report at perpetuallineup.org. The organization conducted a year-long investigation and collected more than 15,000 pages of documents through more than 100 public records requests. The report paints a disturbing picture of intense cooperation between the federal government, and state and local law enforcement to develop a massive facial recognition database.
“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight. But those controls, by and large, don’t exist today,” report co-author Clare Garvie said. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”
There are many technical and legal problems with facial recognition, including significant concerns about the accuracy of the technology, particularly when reading the facial features of minority populations. During a test run by the ACLU of Northern California, facial recognition misidentified 26 members of the California legislature as people in a database of arrest photos.
With facial recognition technology, police and other government officials have the capability to track individuals in real-time. These systems allow law enforcement agents to use video cameras and continually scan everybody who walks by. According to the report, several major police departments have expressed an interest in this type of real-time tracking. Documents revealed agencies in at least five major cities, including Los Angeles, either claimed to run real-time face recognition off of street cameras, bought technology with the capability, or expressed written interest in buying it.
In all likelihood, the federal government heavily involves itself in helping state and local agencies obtain this technology. The feds provide grant money to local law enforcement agencies for a vast array of surveillance gear, including ALPRs, stingray devices and drones. The federal government essentially encourages and funds a giant nationwide surveillance net and then taps into the information via fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information.