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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The expanded use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies poses significant risks, from misidentifications and unlawful targeting to the danger of disclosing sensitive information about people's daily lives.

What's happening: There are few legal constraints on the use of facial recognition. Both federal and state lawmakers are trying to address the technology's risks while responding to pressure from law enforcement and from Big Tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

The technology presents a variety of risks:

  • It threatens to end anonymity, a right critical to common sensitive activities and recognized by the Supreme Court as a key First Amendment shield. In China, a facial recognition surveillance dragnet can quickly track down individuals in cities of millions. U.S. networks are not far behind.
  • It could endanger public safety. One study of real-time facial recognition found misidentifications were 10 times more frequent than proper identifications, and MIT research has revealed high error rates for women and people of color. Without proper checks, a computer error could lead officers to arrest or use force against innocent individuals.
  • It could limit free exercise of protected rights. Baltimore police used facial recognition to disrupt a lawful protest by identifying and arresting anyone with an outstanding warrant. An FBI presentation includes the use of facial recognition to identify attendees at political rallies.

Where it stands: Pre-identified photos of half the U.S. adult population are searchable in law enforcement databases.

What's needed: Limiting the use of facial recognition to serious crimes and requiring police to secure a judge's permission to use the technology, based on probable cause, could lower the risk of abuse.

  • Approval might be granted to identify a suspect committing a crime on a security camera, for example, but not to build a database of attendees at a political event.

Between the lines: Facial recognition systems fall in largely uncharted legal territory, though the Supreme Court did extend Fourth Amendment rights to public areas last year.

  • Washington state is considering competing bills to regulate facial recognition.
  • The debate could soon return to Congress, which has been weighing greater oversight of the technology.
  • The other side: Microsoft and Amazon’s calls for law enforcement limits on facial recognition have not stopped them from lobbying against Washington state's bill with stronger limits, and they are likely to lobby against federal limits as well.

Go deeper: Read the Project on Government Oversight's task force report, "Facing the Future of Surveillance."

Jake Laperruque is senior counsel for the Constitution Project at the Project on Government Oversight.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
9 mins ago - Technology

Microsoft's Activision Blizzard deal complicates Big Tech regulation

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Microsoft's surprise $68 billion deal to buy Activision Blizzard is adding a fresh twist to the heated debate over which tech companies have monopolies that need to be reined in.

The big picture: The deal could force a question the company has happily ducked for a decade: whether its size and power make it just as deserving of regulatory scrutiny as its Big Tech rivals.

Biden to announce plan to distribute 400 million masks for free

Photo: Ken Cedeno/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration will announce Wednesday that 400 million non-surgical N95 masks will be made available to the public for free at thousands of "convenient locations" across the U.S.

Why it matters: This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history, according to a White House official. The masks are slated to be available at numerous local pharmacies.

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
1 hour ago - Health

The end of the Omicron wave is in sight

Expand chart
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

The Omicron wave is likely beginning to recede in the U.S., experts say.

Why it matters: Omicron is still wreaking havoc in parts of the country, but infectious disease experts are optimistic that relief is around the corner.