Maine has passed new legislation that strictly regulates government use of facial recognition technology. The rules prohibit law enforcement from using the technology unless they have probable cause that an unidentified person in a photograph committed a serious crime. And even then, they’ll have to go through the FBI to run a facial recognition search.
Any facial recognition request must be maintained in the public record. The law also prohibits Maine from using facial recognition in schools.
Surveillance state — Facial recognition has been widely criticized by civil rights groups, who argue the technology enables mass surveillance and is too inaccurate to be relied upon. Several cases of false arrests have led to reforms like Maine’s, like one case where a man spent ten days in jail after law enforcement used facial recognition to identify him as a suspect. Studies have found that the technology misidentifies people of color disproportionately.
Facial recognition generally works by analyzing different attributes of a person’s face, like the shape of their nose, and then scanning a database of photos — maybe from drivers licenses — to look for a match. But it typically just returns a probability score, not guaranteeing its match is correct.
Of course, the consequences for someone who gets misidentified can be severe — it’s okay when your Spotify algorithm gives you a bad song, but relying on algorithms in policing is very different. Software programs are essentially black boxes, and nobody really knows how they come to their decisions. For that reason, use of the technology in criminal justice has been widely scrutinized in recent years, with investigations finding bias again people of color is common.
Intimidation — But there remains little accountability over the use of facial recognition, which has been used by police to identify protesters, potentially as an intimidation tactic. Maine’s new legislation will reign in some of that behavior.
“Maine is at the forefront of a national movement to preserve civil rights and liberties in the digital age,” said the ACLU in a press release. “Democracy is stronger and communities are safer when we have clear rules and accountability for how governments use new and emerging technologies.”
In response to scrutiny, companies including Amazon and convenience store chain Rite Aid have walked back their use of facial recognition. Cities including Minneapolis and Portland have banned its use in policing, while some others have implemented guidelines regarding its use similar to Maine.