A patchwork of individual state privacy laws isn’t filling the hole left by absent federal government regulation on facial recognition. Virginia, which approved a ban on local police use of biometric identification tools around a year ago, formally bailed on the law’s most substantive measures on Friday. Now, under an amended bill, law enforcement can implement the technology in a number of scenarios, including when an officer loosely harbours a “reasonable suspicion” an individual has committed a crime. Digital privacy advocates like the ACLU were aghast at Virginia’s abandonment of the policy, which they say is part of a nationwide pattern of increasing resistance to restrictions on the technology.
As part of the amended bill, Virginia law enforcement can reportedly use the technology to attempt to identify victims of a crime, aid in searches for sex trafficking victims, and identify victims at a morgue, among other uses. Supporters of the amended bill believe it will improve law enforcement’s capabilities, though civil liberties groups like the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project say it grants the police far too much power.
“Silicon Valley spyware is not the solution to addressing crime,” S.T.O.P Communications Manager Will Owen told Gizmodo. “The state of Virginia is taking a huge step backward in the fight against abusive policing by lifting its ban on facial recognition technology. This software is broken, biased, and fuels racist policing through digital stop-and-frisk tactics.”
Virginia’s amended bill also drew scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union, who warned it could allow law enforcement the ability to surveil individuals without a warrant and would disproportionately target communities of colour.
“The bill would expand this technology to more law enforcement agencies and grant them access to an even broader database of millions of images, including those from social media,” the ACLU of Virginia said in a statement.
Friday’s reversal risks putting in motion a worrying domino effect that could see other states likewise turn their backs on facial recognition restrictions. A recent May Reuters report cited activists in California and New York City who reported increased resistance to restricting the technology. In both cases, those evolving attitudes towards tech are reportedly linked to a continued uptick in crime. Prior to Virginia’s about-face, an estimated two dozen state and local had banned or limited police use of facial recognition over the past two years.
“Even more concerning, it would allow these agencies to use facial recognition technology without a warrant and with little to no meaningful oversight. This seems to be a recipe for misuse that could result in innocent Virginians being caught unjustly in the criminal legal system,” the ACLU statement read.
Nationally, America’s opinions on police use of facial recognition are complex. A recent March poll conducted by Pew research found 46% of U.S. adults said they thought police use of facial recognition was a “good idea for society,” compared to just 27% who thought it was bad. Another 27% said they were unsure. At the same time though, a majority (57%) of respondents said they doubted police use of the tech would actually lead to lower crime rates. Expressing a sense of resignation, six out of 10 Americans surveyed said they should assume they are being monitored when they are in public spaces.