Secret facial recognition system being shut down

By Bob Unruh

(Photo by Joe Kovacs)

A secret facial recognition program that has been operating in the Washington, D.C., area for a number of years has been ordered to be shut down.

The existence of the program, which was adopted by police chiefs and mayors in secret meetings, only came to light when it was revealed in court documents last year that the Maryland National Capitol Park Police used the system to identify a protester accused of assaulting a police officer at a Black Lives Matter rally.

Then lawmakers in Virginia adopted a plan that would require approval of the state’s general assembly before such a program could be imposed, and the result was confirmation from Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Council of Governments, that the program, called the National Capital Region Facial Recognition Investigative Leads System, would be unplugged no later than July 1.

“Given the recent legislation action on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement in Virginia, the NCRFRILS pilot program was in the process of being re-evaluated. After evaluation, it has been decided that the program will be halted…” he said.

Bean’s confirmation was in a letter to officials with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had written to the council’s board of directors, asking that the program be shut down.

“The public should be informed and provided a meaningful opportunity to weight in on the use of new surveillance technologies and some technologies, like facial recognition, are antithetical to democracy and should not be used,” the coalition letter said.

“The lack of transparency around the NCRFRILS pilot project has only been exacerbated by the lack of response by law enforcement agencies for information on the project,” the letter said.

EPIC noted the system was only revealed in November 2020 after court documents explained its use by Maryland authorities.

“The pilot project has been in use since 2017. It was approved by two MWCOG committees composed of ‘police chiefs and county and city manages’ in meetings hidden from the public,” EPIC said.

“According to the Washington Post the system has been used more than 12,000 times since 2018.”

EPIC reported the trend across the country is for cities to ban such programs, including in Boston, San Francisco, Oakland and Portland, Oregon.

EPIC reported even before that trend developed, research revealed the software used in such programs was “racially biased.”

“Indeed, facial recognition algorithms may mis-identify black women in up to 35% of cases. A landmark 2019 study from the National Institute of Science and Technology confirmed these findings,” EPIC wrote.

Further, such tech “enables comprehensive surveillance which poses a threat to privacy and civil liberties,” EPIC said.

It had been used for “real-time tracking” with the results that it “will substantially chill freedom of speech and protest as individuals rightfully fear identification and retaliation for engaging in protests…”

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