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Maryland’s face recognition system is one of the most invasive in the nation | COMMENTARY

Regulation of facial recognition technology is currently up in the air in the U.S. A few cities, including San Francisco, have banned its use, but there aren't yet any federal laws.
Regulation of facial recognition technology is currently up in the air in the U.S. A few cities, including San Francisco, have banned its use, but there aren't yet any federal laws.(Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)

Amara Majeed woke up one morning last April to death threats from strangers on the internet. Ms. Majeed, a young woman from the Baltimore area who was in college at the time, had been misidentified as a suspect in the Sri Lanka Easter bombings. Her photo was posted on news channels and all over the internet. The mistake was the result of faulty face recognition technology, which Sri Lankan authorities had used to search for suspects.

Face recognition is no longer the stuff of science fiction. It poses real threats, to real people, right now. And what most Marylanders probably don’t realize is that Maryland has one of the most invasive systems of law enforcement face recognition in the country. Given the risks — of misidentification, of having your whereabouts tracked, of ubiquitous surveillance — Maryland should press pause on law enforcement’s use of the technology.

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If you have a Maryland driver’s license, or have been arrested in Maryland, you are subject to unchecked face recognition searches. You are part of a database that is repeatedly searched by police to see whether your face matches a suspect’s. Not just state and local police—federal agents as well. This amounts to over 7 million Maryland driver’s license photos and over 3 million mugshot photos. Once in this database, you are part of a perpetual line-up, always a potential suspect.

Federal agencies like ICE and the FBI can run face recognition searches directly on your photo, even if you have no criminal history. And neither you nor a Maryland law enforcement officer would know about it, let alone a judge. An ICE agent in Nebraska, for example, could run a fishing expedition on Maryland residents’ faces, seeking undocumented people for deportation. Maryland allows undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses; granting licenses, then handing the photos over to ICE, is a dishonest bait and switch.

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Maryland has a complicated history with face recognition. Many praised it after it was used to identify the Annapolis Capital Gazette shooter. On the other hand, police in Baltimore County also used face recognition on social media photos to identify people at the Freddie Gray protests and target them for unrelated arrests. Using face recognition to surveil people at protests and rallies — activities protected by the First Amendment — discourages political participation.

Face recognition gives the government power it’s never had: the ability to identify and track many people, in secret, from a distance, based on how they look or where they’ve been. It defies our expectations of what the government should be able to do. Unchecked, it could create a world without privacy, in which your identity, whereabouts and behavior are accessible to everyone else.

Studies have shown that many face recognition algorithms perform differently depending on skin color, gender and age. Troublingly, a young person with darker skin is more likely to be falsely identified as a criminal suspect by police using face recognition. This is what happened to Ms. Majeed. These errors could also perpetuate the over-incarceration of young black men. In a state that incarcerates young black men at a rate higher than any other state in the nation, this is particularly problematic.

Without legal restraints, police can run searches with “flawed” face data — faces that mix and match different peoples’ features, images that have been heavily edited, celebrity lookalikes and composite sketches. Most infamously, the NYPD identified a suspect using a photo of actor Woody Harrelson. Officers copy and paste features from different peoples’ faces onto one another. They use modeling software to approximate missing facial features in photos. This all amounts to fabrication of evidence.

As it stands, we have no choice but to rely on good faith from law enforcement not to abuse face recognition. But that is not enough. As of 2017, Maryland’s face recognition system had not been audited for accuracy since it launched in 2011. We have no way of knowing if it has been audited since — the system is that covert. If there’s a problem with the technology, in the database of photos, or in how law enforcement is using it, we have no way of knowing.

We need a law that protects the public from face recognition. The General Assembly should support legislation introduce by Democratic Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III of Baltimore County by placing a moratorium on government use of this technology until the public has had time to have an informed, public, democratic debate about its use. A moratorium should remain in place until the legislature passes strict, comprehensive regulation that affords Marylanders the protections they need from this potentially harmful technology.

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Jameson Spivack (js4485@georgetown.edu) is a policy associate at the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University Law Center who specializes in face recognition use and policy.

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