Count the Journal Star editorial board among those insufficiently outraged over police use of facial recognition software to join the call for law enforcement to suspend its use for months or years.

However, the topic is certainly worthy of public discussion. Guidelines should be developed so the public is aware, for example, of how the photos on their driver’s licenses may be used. Some level of privacy protection is advisable.

The call for local law enforcement to stop using the software came from ACLU Nebraska following a Georgetown University report called “The Perpetual Lineup,” which reported on the widespread national use of the software. The report by the university’s Center on Privacy and Technology pointed out that the Lincoln Police Department and the Nebraska State Patrol were among the agencies using the technological tools.

The two agencies use the Department of Motor Vehicles system, which uses it to stop identify theft.

Facial recognition software is everywhere. Most people have it on their smartphones. Is anyone really shocked that police are using it to comb through photo databases to catch criminals?

As the Georgetown report puts it, “The benefits of face recognition are real. It has been used to catch violent criminals and fugitives. The law enforcement officers who use the technology are men and women of good faith. They do not want to invade our privacy or create a police state. They are simply using every tool available to protect the people that they are sworn to serve. Police use of face recognition is inevitable. This report does not aim to stop it.”

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It’s abundantly evident that “big data” can be put to objectionable uses in both the public and private sector. Facebook was recently taken to task for offering ads that excluded certain groups on the basis of “ethnic affinities.” “Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white subscribers,” ProPublica said in its report on the practice.

“Big data” is a tsunami that is altering the structure of society in ways that people are only beginning to comprehend.

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The Lincoln City Council in 2013 set a policy that allows considerable police latitude in the use of facial recognition software. The policy does not, however, allow police to use it as the sole basis for an arrest. Public Safety Director Tom Casady said Lincoln police submitted 17 photos for a search last year, with four identifications.

It seems excessive and premature to take away police use of facial recognition software, even temporarily.

It’s clear, however, that big data could be misused to discourage free speech and the right of assembly. Policies that govern its use should be public; regular reports should be required on how police are using facial recognition software and similar “big data” tools.


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