New breed of government facial recognition technology raises fear of privacy violations

RINF Alternative News

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) development of a Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) has raised concerns among civil rights advocates that the technology is being developed without the necessary safeguards to protect the privacy of citizens.

BOSS is a surveillance system that uses computers and video cameras to scan faces anywhere with the purpose of identifying people through their facial features. The system, officially developed by the DHS for the purpose of identifying fugitives or suspected terrorists, was tested last fall after two years of being developed through government funding.

The testing was conducted in Kennewick, Washington by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The experiment involved 30 volunteers, whose facial data were mixed with 1,000 mugshots to determine whether or not BOSS could reliably recognize the volunteers whenever they were present.

The DHS concluded that the tests were actually only partially successful since BOSS was currently too unreliable and slow. For BOSS to be ready for use in the the DHS’s operations, the DHS admitted that several more years of work would be needed.

However, even though BOSS technology is apparently years away from being put to actual use, privacy advocates are already raising concerns over the development of facial recognition technology for use by the government. Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is one of these advocates.

McCall was able to acquire BOSS-related documents through the Freedom of Information (FOI) law and shared them with The New York Times. She believes that now — while the technology is in development and not yet ready for use — was the time to talk about what rules should govern how such technology can be used.

What worries McCall is the absence of any mention of privacy protection in the 35 pages of information that the DHS supplied her with. Ms. McCall’s concern is also rooted in her observation that surveillance technology is always labeled as being for antiterrorism use, but then it is employed for other purposes.

Ms. McCall is specifically calling for limits to be drafted on whose faces can be loaded into such systems when these are finally deployed. She further expressed that while she believed it was acceptable to use such a system for antiterrorism purposes, she also feared the possibility that the system would be used to track everyone’s public movements simply by tapping into the comprehensive database of driver’s license photographs.

The concerns expressed by civil rights advocates are undoubtedly underpinned by the leaks released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, who revealed details of several top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to the press. The leaked information includes details about two different NSA operations that involved the collection of data from U.S. phone call records to track possible links to terrorists abroad, and the surveillance of online communications to and from foreign targets to detect suspicious behavior.

Bryan Harris, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, wrote a piece on BOSS where he voiced his opinion that while BOSS could serve legitimate and practical purposes in the prevention of crime, the current means by which the federal government continues to overstep its bounds and gathers data on innocent Americans makes it necessary and urgent for Congress to immediately implement substantial rules and regulations that will prevent abuse by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.