Maryland's use of facial recognition software questioned by researchers, civil liberties advocates

A five-year-old program in Maryland that lets police compare images of unidentified criminal suspects with millions of motor vehicle records using increasingly advanced facial recognition software has come under fire from civil liberties advocates, who say such programs lack transparency and infringe on privacy rights.

Police have used the Maryland Image Repository System with little fanfare since 2011. But the program has attracted increased scrutiny since the American Civil Liberties Union in California released documents last week showing the system was used to monitor protesters during the unrest and rioting in Baltimore last year.

That followed other recent disclosures about law enforcement in Baltimore adopting clandestine technologies, including cellphone tracking and aerial surveillance.

The Center on Privacy & Technology at the Georgetown University Law Center plans to release a national study Tuesday on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement. The center highlights Maryland’s position at the cutting edge of the technology and questions its merits.

Maryland is one of at least five states that has provided access to driver’s licenses, local police mug shots and other corrections records to the FBI, according to state and federal data. A dozen other states provide driver’s license photographs only. Still others have laws prohibiting the use of facial recognition.

“There’s a question of who is being subjected to this kind of facial recognition search in the first place,” Rocah said. “Is it only Black Lives Matter demonstrators who get this treatment? Are they drawing those circles only in certain neighborhoods? The context in which it’s described here seems quintessentially improper.”

Bedoya said research shows that facial recognition software is less accurate when identifying African-American faces, making it “least accurate for the population that the Baltimore police is most likely to use it on.”

State officials said they were not aware of such issues.

Garvie said Maryland and other states are building out applications for facial recognition without sufficient policies in place to govern how they should function, and are doing little to inform the public about the programs.

“We’re seeing the technology advance very, very rapidly right now, and as the technology advances, we’re going to see more and more aggressive deployment,” Garvie said. “We’re not seeing any public dialogue around this.”

Brown, the MVA spokesman, said his agency has a privacy policy posted on its website that reserves its right to share private information with law enforcement. He said the agency would try to display it more prominently.

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