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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.8, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Power, Authority, and Governance • Science, Technology, and Society • Civic Ideals and Practices

SPOTLIGHT

Are You Being Watched?

Facial recognition technology can identify people’s faces—and may make Americans safer. But is it also threatening our privacy?

As You Read, Think About: What are the benefits and drawbacks of facial recognition technology?

When fans at a recent Taylor Swift concert in Los Angeles passed a screen playing videos of the pop star, they didn’t know that a hidden camera was snapping their photos. The images were reportedly analyzed by special software. The goal? To look for people considered potential threats to the singer.

That’s just one example of how facial recognition technology is becoming more common in the United States. It’s being used to boost security in many public places. Police departments are also using it to help find suspects (see sidebar, below).

Fans at a recent Taylor Swift concert in Los Angeles passed a screen playing videos of the pop star. They did not know that a camera hidden inside was snapping their photos. The images were reportedly analyzed by special software. The goal? To look for people considered possible threats to the singer.

That is just one example of how facial recognition technology is becoming more common in the United States. It is being used to increase security in many public places. Police departments are also using it to help find suspects (see sidebar, below).

Americans must decide how much privacy we are willing to give up in order to feel secure.

This worries some people. They say being scanned by facial recognition software without their knowledge, especially by law enforcement, violates their right to privacy. The technology has also come under fire for being inaccurate.

Those concerns recently led cities in California and Massachusetts to ban its use by police. Other places are considering doing the same thing. 

But some people say it’s a mistake to ban the technology entirely. Facial recognition can be a powerful tool for ensuring public safety, they argue—as long as its use is regulated. 

Ultimately, Americans must decide: How much privacy are we willing to give up to feel secure?

This worries some people. They say being scanned by facial recognition software without their knowledge violates their right to privacy, especially when it is used by law enforcement. The technology has also come under fire for being inaccurate.

Those concerns recently led cities in California and Massachusetts to ban its use by police. Other places are thinking of doing the same thing.

But some people say it is a mistake to ban the technology entirely. They argue that facial recognition can be a powerful tool for ensuring public safety—as long as its use is regulated.

In the end, Americans must decide how much privacy we are willing to give up to feel secure.

Scanning It All

If you’ve ever unlocked your phone just by looking at it, you’ve used facial recognition software. It’s also used at several U.S. airports to improve security screenings. 

The technology is even starting to pop up in schools. Several around the U.S., including in Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma, reportedly use facial recognition systems to scan kids and adults. Officials say the technology is used to spot people who aren’t supposed to be at school.

A controversy erupted last year when the school district in Lockport, New York, planned to use a facial recognition system. Some parents and state lawmakers opposed the plan, saying the technology could endanger students’ privacy. Groups that work to protect Americans’ basic freedoms, known as civil liberties, are also concerned that using such technology in schools will lead kids to accept—and expect—that authorities will monitor everything they do.

Have you ever unlocked your phone just by looking at it? If so, you have used facial recognition software. It is also used at several U.S. airports to improve security screenings.

The technology is even starting to pop up in schools. Several schools around the U.S. reportedly use facial recognition systems to scan kids and adults. That includes schools in Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma. Officials say the technology is used to spot people who are not supposed to be at school.

A controversy erupted last year in Lockport, New York. The school district there planned to use a facial recognition system. But some parents and state lawmakers opposed the plan. They said the technology could endanger students’ privacy. Groups that work to protect Americans’ basic freedoms are also concerned about using the technology in schools. Americans’ basic freedoms are known as civil liberties. The groups worry that kids will come to accept and expect that authorities will monitor everything they do.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Facial recognition software for law enforcement on display at a tech conference

Crime Fighter?

The debate over facial recognition gets even more heated when it comes to the technology’s use by law enforcement. A 2016 study found that at least a quarter of state and local police departments have the ability to run facial recognition searches. Many departments say the tech allows them to track down suspects much faster than traditional methods do. 

How does that work? Typically, police upload an image of a suspect to a computer that has facial recognition software. (The photo could come from a store security camera or from a phone.) The software scans the image and compares it with images in police databases, which include images of people who were previously arrested. Many states also allow police to use the software to compare a suspect’s image to driver’s license photos.

Police say the technology, which can search through millions of images in seconds, saves them valuable time. In New York City alone, authorities say, it led to nearly 1,000 arrests last year. In other places, facial recognition software has helped police nab suspected jewel thieves and a mass shooter, among others. 

The debate over facial recognition gets even more heated when it comes to law enforcement using the technology. A 2016 study found that at least a quarter of state and local police departments are able to run facial recognition searches. Many departments say the tech lets them track down suspects much faster than traditional methods do.

How does that work? Typically, police upload an image of a suspect to a computer that has facial recognition software. (The photo could come from a store security camera or from a phone.) The software scans the image. Then it compares the image with ones in police databases. The databases include images of people who were previously arrested. Many states also let police use the software to compare a suspect’s image to driver’s license photos.

The technology can search through millions of images in seconds. Police say this saves them valuable time. Authorities say that in New York City alone, it led to nearly 1,000 arrests last year. In other places, facial recognition software has helped police catch suspected jewel thieves. It has also helped them catch a mass shooter, among others.

Flawed Technology?

Yet facial recognition technology is far from perfect. For example, it has been shown to make significantly more mistakes when attempting to identify people of color and women.

Why? The people who developed facial recognition systems typically used photo databases that contained more images of white men than of women and people of color. 

“People who created [the software] didn’t notice because they were mostly white men,” says Meredith Broussard, an artificial intelligence expert at New York University. She says that the software’s shortcomings could lead to innocent people being misidentified—and arrested.

Yet facial recognition technology is far from perfect. For example, it has been shown to make significantly more mistakes when attempting to identify people of color and women.

Why? The people who developed facial recognition systems typically used photo databases that contained more images of white men than of women and people of color.

“People who created [the software] didn’t notice because they were mostly white men,” says Meredith Broussard. She is an artificial intelligence expert at New York University. Broussard says that the software’s shortcomings could lead to innocent people being misidentified and arrested.

A Threat to Our Voices?

Even if the accuracy of facial recognition technology improves, some people have serious concerns about its use by authorities. Groups that defend civil liberties say that police could use the technology to identify anyone who is out in public at any time—even if what a person is doing is legal. According to the 2016 study, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities are moving to use systems that do that, claiming that they help them find crime suspects.

The accuracy of facial recognition technology may improve. But some people would still have serious concerns about authorities using it. Groups that defend civil liberties say that police could use the technology to identify anyone who is out in public at any time, even if what a person is doing is legal. According to the 2016 study, some cities are moving to use systems that do that, including Chicago and Los Angeles. Those cities’ officials claim that the systems help them find crime suspects.

People may be less likely to engage in free speech if they know they are being watched and tracked.

Being constantly monitored by the police poses a threat to our basic freedoms, civil liberties advocates claim. They say Americans may be less likely to engage in free speech if they know that they’re being watched.

For example, if the police use facial recognition to identify protesters, people might be afraid to openly object to government policies. (Speaking out in this way is a right protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)

Being constantly monitored by the police poses a threat to our basic freedoms, civil liberties advocates claim. They say Americans may be less likely to engage in free speech if they know that they are being watched.

For example, the police could use facial recognition to identify protesters. That could make people afraid to openly object to government policies. (Speaking out in this way is a right protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)

Calls for Regulation

Many Americans say police departments, companies, and schools must be more upfront about how they’re using facial recognition. Some U.S. lawmakers have proposed bills to help regulate use of the technology, but none have yet become law. Even some major technology companies that develop facial recognition software worry that the industry is growing too quickly, with too few rules to govern it.

“If we move too fast with facial recognition,” Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, wrote in 2018, “we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken.” 

Many Americans say police departments, companies, and schools must be more upfront about how they are using facial recognition. Some U.S. lawmakers have proposed bills to help regulate use of the technology. But none have yet become law. Even some major technology companies that develop facial recognition software worry that the industry is growing too quickly. And they worry it has too few rules to govern it.

Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, wrote about that in 2018. “If we move too fast with facial recognition,” he wrote, “we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken.”

Write About It! Would you be in favor of facial recognition technology being used in your town or school? Write an essay that argues your point of view. Be sure to support your argument with reasons and evidence.

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