Trends in Government Contracting
Facial Recognition and the U.S. Government: Federal, State and Local
by Carol Ingley
Week of August 31, 2020 through September 28, 2020
Digital Trends and Key Words: facial recognition, internet and electronic frontier civil liberties
Definition and Market. Facial recognition, a technology used to identify a person from a digital image or video frame, is an emerging and powerful system. A few examples of use of this technology includes social media (such as Facebook), mobile phone makers (such as Apple), and some airlines. The global facial recognition market is forecast to grow steadily between 2019 and 2025 with an average growth rate annually of 17.6%, according to a study by Reportlinker. The size of the market was $4.4 billion in U.S. dollars in 2019 and is projected to grow to $10.9 billion by 2025, says the study.
A huge potential yet very controversial U.S. market for facial recognition is governments: federal, state and local. Yet few in the government sector are making the issues and implications of using this new technology widely known. Some of those issues and implications can be answered by posing the following questions: where, when, why, how and if to use it.
For facial recognition technology, civil liberties can be narrowed down to a subset: internet and electronic frontier civil liberties. Perhaps the Electronic Frontier Foundation defines internet civil and electronic frontier liberties best in one of its mission statements: "to help civilize the electronic frontier; to make it truly useful and beneficial not just to a technical elite, but to everyone; and to do this in a way which is in keeping with our society's highest traditions of the free and open flow of information and communication."
Asking the Questions.While the governments in the U.S. may not be that forthcoming regarding the many issues surrounding this new technology, many of the questions about facial recognition are being asked publicly by watchdog groups. Watchdog groups are non-governmental groups that track state and federal government agencies for fraud, waste, abuse, corruption and illegal activity. Here are four watchdog agencies that are asking and answering questions about the government use of facial recognition technology and internet and electronic frontier civil liberties: American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Government Accountability Project and Fight for the Future, among others.
One statement from Fight for the Future’s website seems to sum up the issues around facial recognition: “We fight to ensure that technology is a force for empowerment, free expression and liberation rather than tyranny, corruption and structural inequality.”
These watchdog groups may well be reacting to what is happening in China.
China’s Use of Facial Recognition Technology. According to Alfred Ng, in a CNET article How China uses facial recognition to control human behavior, “China's facial recognition system logs nearly every single citizen in the country, with a vast network of cameras across the country.”
This network of cameras creates more than 6.8 million records from a single day. While there may be many benefits to some of this surveillance, China has been known to publicly shame people for what many would consider non-crimes.
On March 11, 2020, 17 U.S. senators got together and sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying, "China uses facial recognition to profile Uyghur individuals, classify them on the basis of their ethnicity, and single them out for tracking, mistreatment, and detention."
Facial Recognition Technology Use in the US by Government Agencies. The fact is that the U.S. government is already using facial recognition in diverse areas. In Vox’s article Here’s where the US government is using facial recognition, it points out that Fight for the Future tracks government use of facial recognition. These areas include airports, local police, state police and Amazon's Ring.
What is now needed are public forums to discuss the critical questions of where, when, why, how and if to use facial recognition by government agencies.
The point is the empowerment of citizens, not tyranny, corruption and structural inequality. Facial recognition can be used to protect people. Three areas where facial recognition technology may stop crime that is of particular concern for citizens and the U.S. government as well as state and local governments include cyberattacks, terror attacks, and identity theft. The future of this technology is exciting but it needs to be well defined within the diverse governments in the U.S.
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