Facial recognition technology is making a comeback in the United States, as bans intended to thwart the technology and reduce racial bias in policing are under attack, owing to an increase in crime and increased lobbying from developers.
Virginia will lift its ban on local police use of facial recognition in July, a year after approving it, and California and the city of New Orleans could follow suit as soon as this month.
Homicide reports in New Orleans have increased 67 percent in the last two years compared to the previous two, and police say they need every tool possible.
Efforts to impose bans are being met with opposition in jurisdictions ranging from New York and Colorado to West Lafayette, Indiana. Even Vermont, the last state with a near-complete ban on police use of facial recognition, modified its law last year to allow for the investigation of child sex crimes.
Approximately two dozen state or local governments in the United States passed laws restricting facial recognition between 2019 and 2021. Studies had found that the technology was less effective in identifying Black people, and anti-police Black Lives Matter protests fueled the debate.
However, ongoing research by the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has demonstrated significant industrywide accuracy progress. Furthermore, DHS testing published last month found little variation in accuracy across skin tone and gender.
Shifting sentiments could bring its members, including Clearview AI, Idemia, and Motorola Solutions, a larger share of the $124 billion spent on policing by state and local governments each year. The percentage devoted to technology is not closely monitored.
Gaining new police business is becoming increasingly important for Clearview, which this week agreed to settle a privacy lawsuit over images it collected from social media by agreeing not to sell its flagship system to the private sector in the United States.
Clearview, which assists law enforcement in finding matches in social media data, stated that it welcomes “any regulation that helps society get the most benefit from facial recognition technology while limiting potential downsides.” Idemia and Motorola, which provide matches from government databases.
Though recent studies have alleviated lawmakers’ concerns, the debate continues. In a report released last month, the General Services Administration, which oversees federal contractors, stated that major facial recognition tools failed to match African Americans disproportionately in its tests.
The president’s new National AI Advisory Committee, which was formed last week, will look into the use of facial recognition in law enforcement.
Virginia passed its ban through a process that excluded facial recognition developers. According to State Senator Scott Surovell, corporate lobbyists came prepared this year to advance legislation that better balanced individual liberties with police investigation needs.
Parker, the lobbyist, described the law as “the nation’s first to require the accuracy of facial recognition technology used by law enforcement to be evaluated by the US government,” as well as “the nation’s most stringent set of rules for its use.”
In 2019, California prohibited police from using facial recognition technology on mobile devices such as body-worn cameras. However, due to a provision added by state senators, the prohibition will expire on January 1.
According to Jennifer Jones, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, news reports about rising retail theft and smash-and-grab robberies have piqued lawmakers’ interest.
Despite increased crime, activists in New York are also pushing for a ban on facial recognition technology. Eric Adams, who took over as mayor in January, said a month later that it could be used safely under current rules, whereas his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, had urged caution.
Over the last six months, West Lafayette officials have twice failed to enact a ban on facial recognition, citing its utility in investigations.
Following the defeat in Virginia, civil liberties organizations are ramping up their efforts in New Orleans. Ten national organizations last week told councilmembers to strengthen, not repeal, its ban, citing the risk of wrongful arrests based on faulty identifications.