Facial recognition is making a comeback in US cities. Here's what we know

Policymaker consensus is changing.
Brad Bergan
Facial recognition technology targeting a crowd (left), and CCTV cameras (right).1, 2

Looks like we're being watched again.

U.S. cities are bringing facial recognition back into use despite previous efforts to protect citizen privacy and hold law enforcement authorities accountable for prejudice, according to an initial report from Reuters.

Specifically, an earlier prohibition on facial recognition technology will be reversed in Virginia this July, enabling police to use it — with New Orleans and the state of California primed to do the same later this month.

Proponents argue it's become more accurate, and thus less ethically risky. But the most popular use-cases — surveillance and the punitive measures of police forces — raise questions worth considering.

Facial recognition technology might be more accurate now

Part of the reasoning behind this reversal is a rising crime rate. In New Orleans, homicide reports surged by 67 percent in the last two years compared with the year before. Police claim they've used every other tool, but need facial recognition to make progress.

"Technology is needed to solve these crimes and to hold individuals accountable," said Shaun Ferguson, Superintendent of the New Orleans police in a statement advocating for the city council to repeal the 2021 ban of facial recognition.

From 2019 to 2021, roughly 12 U.S. local or state governments passed laws to reduce the scope of facial recognition applications. But, mounting research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has suggested substantial progress in the accuracy of the technology. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security released a study in April that cast doubt on the idea of a lack of equity for facial recognition technology's accuracy between races and gender.

"There is growing interest in policy approaches that address concerns about the technology while ensuring it is used in a bounded, accurate and nondiscriminatory way that benefits communities," said Senior Director Jake Parker of the Security Industry Association, which is a lobbying group.

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Clearview AI is very confident about its facial recognition software

Sentiments about the morality of technology can shift with the times, often when money is involved. And the Association's members — Motorola Solutions, Idemia, and Clearview AI, stand to make a large portion of the $124 billion state and local governments set aside for policing every year.

Notably, police spending is not closely tracked, when it comes to technology, according to Reuters.

And Clearview has ample incentive to acquire new business with police forces, since the firm settled a privacy lawsuit this week regarding images it had gathered from social media by agreeing it wouldn't sell its facial recognition system to commercial entities in the United States.

Clearview uses social media data to give police potential matches, and said it is open to "any regulation that helps society get the most benefit from facial recognition technology while limiting potential downsides."

The future of facial recognition technology

But again, while the consensus of some lawmakers may be shifting, the moral and ethical question of facial recognition is ongoing. The General Services Administration — which supervises federal contractors — said in an April report that common facial recognition tools didn't match Black people correctly in tests, but hasn't elaborated on how the tests were carried out, nor how its conclusions were reached.

As of writing, U.S. President Joe Biden's new National AI Advisory Committee is reviewing facial recognition technology, and last week it started putting a subgroup together slated to investigate its use in policing. It's a difficult subject to parse, not only politically, but technologically. But the fact that its most popular use-cases — on smartphones, and law enforcement's abuse of power — raises the question of what productive use it could serve beyond verifying your identity to Web 2.0 platforms and hardware, or being subject to punitive measures and surveillance. Time will tell what lies in store for facial recognition.

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