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Face Recognition Technology Threatens Privacy

The New York Times recently revealed that the NSA was collecting images of foreign targets from around the globe. With the increasing ease of data transmission and the increasingly public lives of individuals through social media and other means, the NSA has a vast resource for investigating various terrorist threats. It simply collects a few images of an individual, identifies a few key points on his or her face, and can then identify that person in a later image through facial-recognition technology. There is no doubt that this is an effective and efficient means of tracking individuals.

The lingering issue is whether it will be used domestically and the privacy implications involved. As useful as this may be for the NSA, many are skeptical of its promise to refrain from using it on American citizens unless it has proper legal approval. More importantly, this technology would be a valued asset to local authorities, airport security, and any other place where routine security checks are used. If face-recognition has not been considered for domestic use already, it will certainly be considered in the near future. Its use, however, is a double-edged sword in terms of privacy protection.

While it is easy to identify and track known criminals or even average citizens via face-recognition technology, it removes the protections that even a Terry Stop provides (a Terry stop is the brief detention of a person by a police officer for questioning). When stopped by a police officer, it is usually because of some sort of suspicious activity. It is not until after the detainee has drawn the attention of police that he or she is questioned and asked to provide identification. Face-recognition, on the other hand, forces people to literally wear their identity out in the open. Police would be able to pull an individual’s entire criminal background from a brief scan of his face. The person being scanned would be none the wiser.

With this, the risk of prejudice to people with past criminal records is much higher. By simply walking by a police officer equipped with this technology, an ex-convict will draw additional scrutiny from police officers. It prevents criminals from escaping their pasts and allows an unprovoked insight into any individual within view. Using social media sites like Facebook would also provide enough images of nearly any person to build a recognizable face and allow a person to be identified with this technology.

Although facial-recognition technology is not used in the U.S. and the technology is still relatively new, now is the time to lay a legal framework for its use. It is and will be an effective tool, but it must not come at the cost of our own privacy rights.


Source: James Risen & Laura Poitras, N.S.A. Collecting Millions of Faces from Web Images, N.Y. Times (May 31, 2014) available here.