Last year, a Russian startup announced that it could scan the faces of people passing by Moscow’s thousands of CCTV cameras and pick out wanted criminals or missing persons. Unlike much face recognition technology — which runs stills from videos or photographs after the fact — NTechLab’s FindFace algorithm has achieved a feat that once only seemed possible in the science fictional universe of “Minority Report”: It can determine not just who someone is, but where they’ve been, where they’re going, and whether they have an outstanding warrant, immigration detainer, or unpaid traffic ticket.
For years, the development of real-time face recognition has been hampered by poor video resolution, the angles of bodies in motion, and limited computing power. But as systems begin to transcend these technical barriers, they are also outpacing the development of policies to constrain them. Civil liberties advocates fear that the rise of real-time face recognition alongside the growing number of police body cameras creates the conditions for a perfect storm of mass surveillance.
“The main concern is that we’re already pretty far along in terms of having this real-time technology, and we already have the cameras,” said Jake Laperruque, a fellow at the Constitution Project. “These cameras are small, hard to notice, and all over the place. That’s a pretty lethal combination for privacy unless we have reasonable rules on how they can be used together.”