Dystopian films and literature are usually thought of as science fiction, but while this entertainment might be classified as fiction, it often portends a future that may already be here. That is especially true when it comes to crime fighting. In my previous post, I discussed a few of the tools now at law enforcement’s disposal that would have been considered science fiction only a generation ago. Are we heading towards a world with oppressive societal controls and a loss of civil rights as the dystopian novels and films depict? Many civil rights advocates fear just that.

One of the emerging crime fighting techniques is facial recognition and many fear that this technique not only violates the rights of innocent people. There is also legitimate concern about facial recognition errors identifying innocent people. No one really knows how widespread the use of this law enforcement technique is because there are very few controls or reporting requirements and almost zero transparency. Police can scan images from virtually any photograph, including DMV photos, social media, and even video webcams set up to scan the public. Facial recognition software can then be used to scan through these digitized images to look for a match in the search for a suspect. What’s wrong with that, you might ask?

Well, to begin, it is essentially a virtual lineup. Maybe you are in that lineup and you don’t even know it – actually you may have already been in one of these lineups or soon will be. Remember, law enforcement is able to scan through thousands of images at the push of a computer button.

What if your facial features digitally match with the suspect but you had nothing to do with the crime? That is exactly what happened recently to a man in Colorado. His facial features, digitized by the software, made an almost perfect match with the security camera image of a bank robber. Problem was, he wasn’t the bank robber. He was arrested and spent two months in jail before prosecutors dropped the case. The incident literally ruined his life—he suffered permanent injuries as a result of the arrest and he lost his job and found himself homeless. He has filed a lawsuit for false arrest, excessive force and malicious prosecution.

Facial recognition is also being used to identify persons participating in a protest or rally. This presents a threat to our right to free speech. When people fear that they are being identified in a free speech gathering, which might land their identity in a police file, they may choose not to participate. By using facial recognition to identify protesters, or for any other non-criminal reason for that matter, the police have conducted a search without your consent or without any suspicion of wrongdoing.

I could write so much more but this is just a brief discussion for your consideration. We want the police to do their job and an important part of their job is to fight crime. But do we want this accomplished at the expense of our civil rights? Many people would answer “yes” to that question but consider what that could mean. Rather than a utopia free of crime, we might end up with a dystopia where everyone is a suspect.

With almost 25 years experience in criminal defense, William Weinberg is available to consult with you regarding any criminal matter. You can reach him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or email him at bill@williamweinberg.comCalifornia La