If you have a driver's license, odds are better than even that your photo is sitting in a police database somewhere. And if you are young, female or black, the facial recognition software that compares your face to a video image may not get a perfect match.
Those are two of the surprising findings of a new study this week that found that 117 million Americans - more than half of all adults - have been quietly added to facial recognition databases held by state and local law enforcement agencies.
All drivers in Maryland and Virginia, for example, have been added into a computer. So, too, have residents of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif. The New York Police Department may soon use these databases to match drivers' licenses to video from close-circuit TV cameras. Police in Florida don't even need probable cause to sift through 22 million drivers' licenses on file in their state.
Checking for identification markers such as fingerprints or DNA against a database of known criminals has been commonplace in police departments. But now law enforcement is casting a wider net.
"Historically, biometric databases have been composed of criminals," said Harrison Rudolph, a fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. "This database is made of innocent people."
Rudolph and colleagues at the Center on Privacy and Technology spent a year collecting information from police agencies across the country using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In their study "The Perpetual Lineup," they found that police use of facial recognition systems is more pervasive, more advanced and less controlled than many Americans realize. What's more, there has been almost no debate in Congress or in statehouses about whether this is a good idea.
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Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has been one of the few lawmakers interested in the issue. He held hearings on the accuracy of facial recognition databases in 2012, and earlier this year requested the General Accountability Office to examine the FBI's massive facial recognition database of 400 million images.
The GAO found the FBI failed to check the accuracy or privacy of the database, which includes 30 million criminal mugshots and 140 million images from visa applications by foreign nationals.
The FBI database also contains drivers' license pictures from 16 US states and 6.7 million photos from the Defense Department's ID's of people detained by US forces abroad.
"Face recognition can be a very useful tool in the fight against crime - it can in fact help us catch violent offenders and criminals," Franken said in a statement. "But I'm also a firm believer that Americans have a fundamental right to privacy."
A spokesman for Senator Franken said he expects that legislation to require more privacy and civil rights safeguards will be introduced in the next session of Congress.
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and 52 other groups sent a letter to the Department of Justice this week requesting a review of police practices of facial recognition databases.
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