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Facial Recognition Meets the Fourth Amendment Test

Amitai Etzioni

Security, Americas

There may be no way to address the overarching fears all new surveillance technologies raise; however, major concerns can be addressed without slowing the use of facial recognition.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials were able to secure grainy images of hijackers as they navigated the airports on the morning of their assault.  The authorities were frantically trying to establish their identities in order to determine who helped them carry out the attacks and whether they had associates on the lam, planning other assaults. However, it took weeks to identify them. As of September 28, 2001, the FBI was still working to confirm their identities. Unable to close the matter on its own, the FBI released nineteen photographs, along with possible names and numerous aliases, seeking help from the public to fully identify the terrorists. Today, using facial recognition (FR), law enforcement could have identified them within three minutes.

This stunning figure is based on a study led by Daniel Steeves, chief information officer for the Ottawa Police Service, which conducted a six-month test of the use of FR in a robbery-investigation unit. It found that the tool “lowered the average time required for an officer to identify a subject from an image from 30 days to three minutes.”

On June 28, 2018, a gunman opened fire at the office of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. The Anne Arundel County police department captured the suspect, however he refused to cooperate and it took a considerable amount of time to use his fingerprints to identify him. Instead, the police used a state database of driver’s license and mugshot photos and established his identity on the spot.

In New York City, FR has been employed for a wide range of public goods. These include the arrests of a suspected rapist, of a person who pushed another onto the subway tracks, the identification of a hospitalized woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the identification of a child sex trafficker sought by the FBI. Over the course of 2018, NYC detectives requested 7,024 FR searches, resulting in 1,851 possible matches and 998 arrests.

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