The Massive Facial Recognition Database That's Hiding in Plain Sight

It's only natural to be a little skeeved out by the idea that the government is slurping up your private data behind the scenes, but there's a very public piece of your data being collected as well: the look on your face. There's already a national database of over 120 million faces, and the Washington Post reports that it's slowly turning into the ultimate police tool.

The database, assembled years ago to help fight prevent drivers-license fraud, isn't limited to just criminals, and it's completely searchable thanks to facial recognition tech. Generally, there's no need for a court order or warrant to make a search, just "law enforcement purposes," which is about as vague as it gets. As for reach, 42 states are involved with the system, offering up their treasure trove of drivers' licenses to the pot.

According to The Post, the system's most practical application is just checking to make people aren't lying about who they are and offering up fake documents when stopped by the police, and it's already proven to be quite good at that. But relatively unrestricted law enforcement access to this kind of searchable database allows pretty serious invasions of privacy. With a tool like this at your disposal it becomes almost trivial to find someone's name from a stray frame of security footage. It's very Minority Report.

It's not new for law enforcement to have access to the stash of information collected at the DMV, but technology is quickly changing what that access means. Getting a picture from a name is very different than a name from a picture. And the questions that kind of power raises are only compounded by the fact that these images aren't just criminals; the vast majority are normal, law-abiding citizens.

The State department has its own little database, consisting of some 230 million faces belonging to visa-holding foreigners and passport-holding citizens alike. That's definitely a big ol' cache, but the State department isn't exactly keen on sharing with anyone. Meanwhile, the meta-network of some 120 million state-ID photos, cobbled together into something bigger is where the real danger of feature-creep lies.

Twenty-six states allow state, local or federal law enforcement agencies to search—sometimes directly, sometimes by request—for individuals who are relevant to an investigation, from suspects to witnesses. And as video-surveillance becomes more and more common, it's easy to see how this becomes a modern-day fingerprint index of not just criminals but of anyone with an ID.

The facial recognition tech behind the searches isn't perfect yet, but it's well on its way. It can already return correct matches reliably in best-case scenarios—small database, well-lit picture, good angle, etc—and experts expect that those will only be requirements for the next couple of years.

Once that happens, the last real barrier to nationwide facial recognition system would be legislation preventing it. Or dumb-looking masks. It stands to reason we'd all prefer the former. But either way, that national database of faces is almost there already; it's only a matter of who gets to use it. [The Washington Post]