US cities backtrack on facial recognition ban as crime rises, but critics point to tech’s racial bias


In the United States, state and administrative authorities are making a 180 degree turn about the ban on facial recognition. Several cities and states, including Virginia, New Orleans and California, are in the process of lifting bans on the use of facial recognition by law enforcement. The country would face an increase in crime and this technology is seen as a way to combat this state of affairs. Critics have pointed to racial bias in facial recognition and other technology biases.

Facial recognition is making a comeback in the United States, as bans aimed at thwarting the technology and curbing racial bias in policing are threatened by a surge in crime and increased lobbying by developers. Efforts to implement bans are meeting resistance from jurisdictions of all sizes, from New York and Colorado to West Lafayette, Indiana. Even Vermont, the last state to nearly 100% ban the use of facial recognition by police, amended its law in 2021 to allow the investigation of child sex crimes.

In July, Virginia will remove a ban on local police using facial recognition, just a year after approving it. Analysts think California and the city of New Orleans could be next to hit the “cancel” button as early as this month. The cause of this reversal on the part of the authorities would be the increase in crime. Homicide reports in New Orleans are said to have risen 67% in the past two years from the previous pair, and police say they need all the tools they can get. Other cities would show higher figures over the same period.

As a reminder, Virginia approved its ban through a process that limited input from facial recognition developers. “This year, corporate lobbyists have succeeded in advancing legislation that better balances individual freedoms with the needs of law enforcement,” said State Senator Scott Surovell. Starting July 1, Virginia police will be allowed to use facial recognition software that tests have shown can achieve 98% accuracy, with minimal variation based on demographics.

“Technology is needed to solve these crimes and to hold individuals accountable,” said Police Commissioner Shaun Ferguson. Ferguson has asked the city council to repeal a ban that went into effect last year. From 2019 to 2021, about two dozen US states or local governments have passed laws restricting the use of facial recognition. Studies had found that the technology was less effective at identifying black people, and the Black Lives Matter anti-police protests added momentum to the arguments.

But ongoing research, conducted by the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has reportedly shown significant progress in accuracy. And US Department of Homeland Security tests released last month found little variation in accuracy by skin color and gender. There is growing interest in policy approaches that address concerns about technology, said Jake Parker, senior director of government relations at the Security Industry Association lobby group.

According to Parker, the most important thing is to ensure that it is used in a limited, precise and non-discriminatory way that benefits communities. Changing sentiment could allow its members, including Clearview AI, Idemia and Motorola Solutions, to get a bigger slice of the $124 billion that states and local governments spend annually on policing. The part devoted to technology is not followed closely. It is increasingly important for Clearview to obtain new contracts with the police.

This week, the company ended a privacy lawsuit over images collected from social media by agreeing not to sell its flagship system to the US private sector. 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 downsides”. Idemia and Motorola, which provide matches from government databases, declined to comment.

Although recent studies have lessened the reservations of legislators, the debate continues. The General Services Administration, which oversees federal contractors, said in a report last month that major facial recognition tools failed to match African Americans disproportionately in its tests. The agency, however, did not give further details on the tests. Facial recognition will be reviewed by the President’s new National Advisory Committee on Artificial Intelligence.

In Virginia, critics of the standard said it was well-intentioned but flawed and that warrants should be required for facial recognition use. Tackling police discrimination 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 who holds it,” said Os Keyes, Ada Lovelace Fellow at the University of Washington.

After the defeat in Virginia, civil liberties groups are on the rise in New Orleans. Last week, ten national organizations called on city 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 “cannot afford to go backwards”. In the United States as in France, the use, or not, of facial recognition is one of the most debated topics lately.

In a report submitted to the law commission on Wednesday, French senators proposed to experiment with facial recognition for a period of three years. The authors of the report – senators Marc-Philippe Daubresse, Arnaud de Belenet and Jrme Durain – say they are against a surveillance company, but propose “to experiment with facial recognition for 3 years on restricted, controlled and supervised cases”. The test results should establish a legal basis for the use of this technology. The report contains 30 recommendations around which this experiment should revolve.

However, recommendation no. 3 proposes prohibiting real-time remote biometric surveillance during demonstrations on the public highway and around places of worship, except in certain specific cases. They justify “very limited exceptions” by the terrorist risk, investigations into serious offenses that threaten or harm the physical integrity of people and other real risks. At a press conference on Wednesday, the three rapporteurs insisted that they are against a surveillance society and that their work has helped to erect red lines on the use of biometric recognition.

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See as well

France: a Senate report recommends experimenting with facial recognition for a period of three years, and draws red lines on the use of this technology

France: the government is committed to launching a National Electronic Identity Card (CNIe) from 2021, the program is based on facial recognition by the Alicem application

France summons Clearview AI, the American company specializing in facial recognition, to delete its data, it has a period of two months to comply with the injunctions

Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition specialist, has agreed to curb its sales in the United States, after a resounding lawsuit

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