Since 2006, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles has used face surveillance technology to try to weed out fraudulent license applicants. From day one, the RMV has allowed law enforcement agencies across Massachusetts and the United States to use its drivers license database and face surveillance tech with no transparency, accountability, or oversight required.

The company that sells this technology to the RMV is called IDEMIA, a French multinational biometrics corporation worth approximately $3 billion. Now, this very same company has released a new video analytics product called Augmented Vision that allows cameras to analyze people and their movements in real-time.

According to IDEMIA, the system includes multiple algorithms with the ability to recognize not only faces but silhouettes, vehicles, number plates, and an unspecified number of objects. All of those capabilities raise serious civil rights concerns, but a particularly pernicious advancement in the technology is its automated “access control system,” which claims to identify a “person of interest,” provide a direct alert, and automatically deny that person access to a space. Presumably, the same technology could be used by governments to track people as they move through public space in real time.

The company doesn’t define “person of interest,” meaning decisions about who is “interesting” to authorities will likely be left to the software user. A system like this could, according to the press release, help police determine who is allowed in a given area, and who may be flagged, stopped, or banned from entering a given area. It is unclear whether the system matches faces in real-time to a database of existing faces, such as from drivers licenses, or whether a user is able to declare a “person of interest” based on characteristics like race, age, and gender. Both of these capabilities allow for the automated tracking and banning of people without their informed consent.

There are currently no statutes in the United States regulating how government agencies can deploy technologies like these, leaving room for abuse, misuse, and discrimination to run rampant.  

While the company’s marketing materials make it sound like Augmented Vision is primarily useful for controlling something like employee access to a corporate building, IDEMIA sees no such restriction on the uses of its product. According to the materials, the company envisions its software in cameras in public and private spaces, including airports, stadiums, retail spaces, and commercial buildings. The software does not require specific hardware, and can be integrated into any existing camera infrastructure.

The ability to secretly monitor and ban people from commercial spaces is unnerving, but these technologies pose particularly serious risks in the hands of law enforcement agencies. In the absence of strong privacy rules, there are no requirements that police disclose on what basis they are tracking people, where they are being tracked, what information police are storing about people, or how that information may be used for stops, searches, surveillance, and arrests. 

That is one reason why the ACLU of Massachusetts supports legislation calling for a moratorium on Massachusetts government use of at-a-distance biometric surveillance technologies like face recognition until proper regulations are passed to protect civil rights and civil liberties. Biometric surveillance technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, without any legal protections in place to guard our most basic freedoms. It’s time to Press Pause on face surveillance now, before it’s too late. 

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This blog post was written by ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty intern Sarah Powazek.