This year in Detroit, crews working for the city’s public housing authority cut down a row of bushy trees that had shaded the entryways to two public housing units known as Sheridan I and II.
Their aim: to give newly installed security cameras an unobstructed view of the hulking, gray edifices, so round-the-clock video footage could be made available to the Detroit Police Department and its new facial recognition software whenever the Detroit Public Housing Commission files a police report.
“I think that police departments won’t make frivolous claims based solely on technology,” said Sandra Henriquez, the commission’s executive director. She added, “I think that they will use the technology as one tool that they use in bringing people into the criminal justice system.”
To critics of the widening reach of facial recognition software, such assurances are likely to ring hollow. As the software improves and as the price drops, the technology is becoming ubiquitous — on wearable police cameras, in private home security systems and at sporting events. Landlords are considering the technology as a replacement for their tenants’ key fobs, a visual check-in that could double as a general surveillance system.
But the backlash has already begun. San Francisco; Somerville, Mass.; and Oakland, Calif., all banned facial recognition software this year. And Congress is taking a look, worried that an unproven technology will ensnare innocent people while diminishing privacy rights.
“We can’t continue to expand the footprint of a technology and the reach of it when there are no guardrails for these emerging technologies to protect civil rights,” said Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, and a sponsor of the No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act, which would ban facial recognition systems in federally funded public housing. It would also require that the Department of Housing and Urban Development send to Congress a detailed report on the software.
At this point, the federal government does not regulate facial recognition software in any way, and HUD officials say they have no plans to create any regulations.
But the technology’s spread is raising serious concerns — on the political right as well as the left. The Chinese government’s use of a vast, secret system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control its Uighur Muslim minority has set off international outrage. It has also demonstrated how functional the technology has become.
In one month this year, law enforcement in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia, along the Yellow River, screened images of residents 500,000 times to determine if they were Uighurs.