Look to your left. Look to your right. Do you see two people? Congrats on being social today. One of those two people is probably included in the FBI’s massive facial recognition database. A new Georgetown report says there are 117 million Americans in the database. That’s about 50 percent of the population.
Don’t freak out. This FBI project isn’t exactly news. In fact, the agency has been slowly building this database—with the help of a couple dozen state laws and regulations—for years. The current status quo has the researchers at Georgetown Law’s Center of Privacy and Technology concerned. But the issue is actually much larger than that.
Facial recognition technology has made tremendous progress in recent years. Some computer companies would have you think that it’s the most dependable biometric data point short of a retina scan. So it should be obvious that law enforcement would be interested in keeping this data on file, much like police have kept fingerprints on file for years. The trouble is, you have to sit down and give your fingerprints, often when you’re having a bad night that ended in the police station. With facial recognition, any camera with the right software can save your picture for future identification.
That’s exactly why the FBI has faced years of criticism for building this Orwellian database of Americans’ faces. Less than a year after finishing the project that made it easy for the feds to identify suspects with facial recognition technology, news emerged that the software hadn’t even been tested for accuracy. Nevertheless, the FBI can legally use the software to search databases of drivers license photos in at least 26 states. This is where Georgetown’s research group basically ended up with that 117 million Americans number.
Unravelling this legally complex privacy battle is complicated. However, the obvious abundance of biometric data provided by facial recognition software is undeniable. The government’s been consolidating this data for years, and so have social media companies like Snapchat, Google, and Facebook. How else do you think that cute puppy feature works? And what about the private security industry that’s been able to install face-reading software for ages?
Are these two big powerful groups using this data in the same way? Almost certainly not. We can only hope that the FBI taps into its facial recognition technology only when agents need to solve a crime. We can assume that social media companies just use the data for fun gimmicks like that Snapchat puppy thing. But it’s important to remember that this software is getting very good and very pervasive.
None of this means you should wear a mask when you leave your house. (Please don’t—it’s extremely creepy.) But the idea that the government and big companies have databases full of our faces is a reality in 2016. It’s fine. It’s probably not going to devolve into some over-cited scene from Minority Report. It’s probably fine.