A bank has just been robbed. The only evidence left behind is grainy security camera footage – detectives have a blurry face, but nothing else to go off of. The photo gets enhanced and run through a database. A few drama-filled moments later, the computer spits out the name and address of a suspect.
This may sound like a terrible plot from an episode (every episode?) of CSI: Miami. But it’s also happening every day in police departments across the country. According to the Washington Post, police officers in 26 states are empowered to use facial recognition software in conjunction with a database of driver’s license photos to track down witnesses, verify IDs, and learn more about potential suspects. Over 120 million Americans appear in these facial recognition systems nationwide.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been arrested for a crime before – if you drive, the police already know what you look like. Show up in the wrong camera and the fuzz will be able to find you within hours.
Not all states let the police search through photo databases of private citizens. Oregon, Washington, New York and eight other states restrict police access to face-recognition systems. California, meanwhile, does not have a facial-recognition system in place.
Currently, most police officers do not need a warrant to run your picture or likeness through a law enforcement database, so long as doing so has a legitimate purpose. Police can analyze security camera footage stills and even Facebook photos to help crack difficult cases.
The American Civil Liberties Union has long opposed facial recognition technology for “its potential to finally and decisively put an end to the possibility of anonymity in public.” Of course, given how muted public response was to revelations that the government is spying on all our Internet communications, America may very well respond to the threat with another big yawn.