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Mugshots for all? Half of U.S. adults in police face-recognition systems, study finds

About half of U.S. adults – more than 117 million men and women – have their pictures entered in a law enforcement face-recognition network, according to a new report by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law.

“The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America” reveals that 25 percent of U.S. police departments can utilize face recognition technology, an emerging, yet almost entirely unregulated field.

Only one of 52 agencies that acknowledged using the technology had obtained legislative approval to do so, the study found. And just one agency provided evidence that their officers’ face-recognition searches were audited for possible misuse.

None of the 52 agencies required warrants before utilizing the technology and many used the technology to identify people who weren’t suspected of committing a crime.

The findings raise serious questions about constitutional rights to privacy in the age of technology.

“Innocent people don’t belong in criminal databases,” said a statement by Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law and co-author of the report. “By using face recognition to scan the faces on 26 states’ driver’s license and ID photos, police and the FBI have basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual lineup. This has never been done for fingerprints or DNA. It’s uncharted and frankly dangerous territory.”

The report argues that face recognition usage will have a disproportionate impact on certain populations. A 2012 study found the technology is less accurate on African-Americans, females and young people. Blacks are also more likely to be entered in the mugshot-based system due to arrest-rate disparities.

The report calls for Congress and state legislatures to enact laws to regulate the technology.

In addition, more than 40 civil rights and civil liberties groups sent a letter to the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an investigation of possible racial bias in the way law enforcement uses the technology.

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