U.S. cities are backing off banning facial recognition as crime rises

OAKLAND, California, May 12 (Reuters) – Facial recognition is making a comeback in the United States as bans aimed at thwarting the technology and tackling racial bias in policing come under threat amid rising crime and increased lobbying from developers.

Virginia will lift its ban on the use of facial recognition by local police in July a year after approving it, and California and the city of New Orleans as early as this month could be the next to push the button. cancellation.

Homicide reports in New Orleans are up 67% in the past two years from the previous pair, and police say they need every tool they can get.

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“Technology is needed to solve these crimes and hold individuals accountable,” Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson told reporters as he called on the city council to repeal a ban that came into effect last year.

Efforts to implement bans are meeting resistance in jurisdictions large and small, from New York and Colorado to West Lafayette, Indiana. Even Vermont, the last state with a nearly 100% ban on police use of facial recognition, pared back its law last year to allow investigation of child sex crimes.

From 2019 to 2021, about two dozen U.S. state or local governments passed laws restricting facial recognition. Studies had found the technology less effective at identifying black people, and the Black Lives Matter anti-police protests gave the arguments a boost.

But ongoing research by the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has shown significant industry-wide progress in accuracy. And Department of Homeland Security tests released last month found little variation in accuracy by skin tone and gender.

“There is growing interest in policy approaches that address concerns about technology while ensuring it is used in a limited, accurate and non-discriminatory way that benefits communities,” said Jake Parker, senior director of the government relations at the lobby group Security Industry Association.

The shift in sentiment could bring its members, including Clearview AI, Idemia and Motorola Solutions , a larger share of the $124 billion that state and local governments spend annually on policing. The part dedicated to technology is little followed.

Winning new cases with police is increasingly important for Clearview, which this week settled a privacy lawsuit over images collected from social media by agreeing not to sell its flagship system to the industry. American private. Read more

Clearview, which helps police find matches in social media data, said it welcomes “any regulation that helps society get the most out of facial recognition technology while limiting potential harm”. . Idemia and Motorola, which provide matches from government databases, declined to comment.

Although recent studies have mitigated the reservations of lawmakers, the debate is ongoing. The General Services Administration, which oversees federal contractors, said in a report last month that major facial recognition tools did not disproportionately match African Americans in its tests. The agency did not respond to requests to provide details of the tests.

Facial recognition will be reviewed by the president’s new National AI Advisory Committee, which last week began forming a subgroup to study its use in policing.

“NATIONAL FIRST”

Virginia approved its ban through a process that limited input from facial recognition developers. This year, corporate lobbyists have geared up to push forward legislation that better balances individual freedoms with the needs of police investigations, State Sen. Scott Surovell said.

Starting July 1, police can use facial recognition tools that achieve 98% or greater accuracy in at least one NIST test with minimal variation between demographics.

NIST declined to comment, citing a practice against discussing the legislation.

Tech critics said the standard was well-intentioned but flawed and that warrants should be required for the use of facial recognition.

“Tackling discriminatory policing by double-checking the algorithm is a bit like trying to solve police brutality by checking that the weapon isn’t racist: strictly speaking, it’s better than the alternative , but the real problem is the person holding it,” said Os Keyes. , Ada Lovelace Fellow at the University of Washington.

Virginia has banned real-time surveillance and facial matches cannot serve as probable cause in warrant applications. Improper use may lead to a crime.

Parker, the lobbyist, called the law “the first in the nation to require the accuracy of facial recognition technology used by law enforcement to be assessed by the U.S. government” and “the strictest set of rules of the country for its use”.

Former Virginia delegate Lashrecse Aird, who spearheaded last year’s law, said businesses wanted a model this year to defeat bans across the country.

“They think it guarantees greater accountability – it’s progress, but I don’t know,” she said.

This contrasts with a Washington state law that requires agencies to conduct their own testing beforehand “under operational conditions.”

“TIMES OF CRISIS”

In 2019, California banned police from using facial recognition on mobile devices such as body-worn cameras. But the ban expires on January 1 due to a provision added by the senators.

Now, reports of increased retail theft and robbery have caught the attention of lawmakers, said ACLU of Northern California attorney Jennifer Jones.

As a result, the ACLU faced resistance from law enforcement to make the ban permanent.

“Police departments are exploiting people’s fears about this crime to amass more power,” Jones said. “It’s been going on for decades, we see new technologies being pushed in times of crisis.”

Activists in New York are also pushing for a ban on facial recognition despite rising crime. Eric Adams, who became mayor in January, said a month later it was safe to use under existing rules, while his predecessor Bill de Blasio urged more caution.

In West Lafayette, authorities have twice failed to enact a ban on facial recognition in the past six months, citing its value in investigations.

“Banning it or removing its app would be a little myopic,” said Mayor John Dennis, a former police officer.

David Sanders, the councilman behind the proposed bans, said concern over worsening officer morale “dominated people’s reactions”.

After the defeat in Virginia, civil liberties groups sprang up in New Orleans. Last week, ten national organizations called on council members to strengthen, not repeal, its ban, citing the risk of wrongful arrests based on misidentifications.

Local group Eye on Surveillance said New Orleans “can’t afford to go back.”

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Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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