The United States, perhaps uniquely among nations, has a proud tradition of protecting the privacy of private citizens. If facial recognition technology becomes a standard tool of law enforcement, though, these quintessential American protections become seriously jeopardized.
Such moves to regulate law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology come on the heels of pushes by the American Civil Liberties Union and other prominent groups to rethink the potential ramifications in terms of loss of civil liberties and privacy.
House Bill 2031 in the Virgina Legislature
Lashrecse Aird, a democrat from Petersburg, has become an unlikely and outspoken proponent of strict limitations regarding the authority with which police may utilize facial recognition tools in everyday law enforcement.
Aird filed House Bill 2031earlier in January that would theoretically limit law enforcement’s ability to deploy this technology as it pleases.
Essentially, the statewide legislation bars local police jurisdictions from any use of facial recognition unless express permission is granted through respective local governments. The bill does not propose preventing the use of this technology at the state level, although reporting indicates that Virginia State Police have no public plans to use it.
Facial Recognition Technology Already in Use in Virginia and Beyond
Law enforcement bodies in Virginia have already experimented with facial recognition technology in their own departments.
At least one Virginia agency, the Norfolk Police Department, has deployed the technology as early as November 2019 for use in 20 investigations that culminated in 9 subsequent arrests.
The Dangers of Law Enforcement Work Done in Secret
Transparency in law enforcement practices is indispensable for a free society. The examples of abuses in governments that do not diligently publicize the methods and outcomes of police investigations are legion.
The greatest objection to Norfolk Police Department’s facial recognition use, from the perspective of Aird, was its deceptiveness. The police in this instance used the technology without the authorization or knowledge of the mayor or city council.
Estimates put the figure of police departments across the country rolling out this technology in secret at a minimum of 600.
The Growing Dissent Regarding Facial Recognition Technology
Far from the mere paranoia of an obscure group of privacy advocates, opinion polling on facial recognition shows an increasing skepticism with which the public views law enforcement’s potential future applications of the technology.
The events of May 2020 – kicked off by the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer – has intensified the public scrutiny of police tactics.
Accordingly, Aird and other representatives in Virginia and throughout the United States insist that the rollout of any new technology should be debated openly and publicly to prevent adverse impacts on people of color, the lower economic classes, and other groups most at risk of the effects of unaccountable law enforcement.
The fight to regulate the use of this rapidly evolving technology will be long. Law enforcement groups, for obvious reasons, are eager to explore its applications, while civil rights groups have legitimate reservations.