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Face the Future: Facial Recognition in Law Enforcement

The rapidly growing use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement raises a host of policy questions over when and how to tap the brakes, or at least how to steer the use of the technology away from trouble. A team of RAND researchers published a new report examining current uses of facial recognition (FR) by law enforcement and identifying the policy debates that will come sooner or later.

"This has significant implications for legislators and policymakers, criminal justice officials, and society in general that should be understood, and further developments should limit the potential risks while maximizing the benefits of such technology," the authors conclude.

FR use has outpaced federal and state legislation. FR offers great benefits in identifying suspects, but also enormous risks to civil liberties. "Combining FR with pervasive surveillance is possible with current technology and represents the most concerning application of this technology because it is overly broad and pervasive," the report states.

Because policymakers have struggled to keep up with the technology, concerns have led to wholesale bans.

More balanced approaches to regulating FR use include limiting it to investigations of serious crimes, and adding layers of approval needed, including requiring warrants. But, without a more complete set of standards, law enforcement agencies could use the technology inconsistently.

The downsides are plain, the report concludes: "Misuse of FR technology by law enforcement or system failures (e.g., convicting an innocent person) is highly detrimental to public trust of law enforcement," particularly if the technology carries with it racially inequitable results.

"As the state of knowledge about FR use in law enforcement continues to grow, there is a need for nuanced thinking about the meaning and options for responsible use, for better disaggregation of the concerns and potential harms regarding law enforcement’s uses of FR, and for identifying options to address those concerns effectively," the report concludes, offering a set of model policies that state and local jurisdictions can work from.


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