Photo credit: New Castle News

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

A recent TV series, Person of Interest, centered on the ability to use large databases of personal information coupled with extensive audio and video surveillance to identify any individual and pull up extensive data on that individual. A small team of good guys used this capability to identify threats to individuals and help the threatened individual escape harm. An extensive network of bad guys seized upon the technology to dominate the world. The good guys, of course, tried to stop the bad guys.

That may sound a little futuristic, but it exists today. The Chinese government has built an extensive facial recognition system which it uses to persecute minority populations and intimidate its general population.

The United States has not gotten to the level of the Chinese, but law-enforcement agencies have made extensive use of face recognition technology. For example, police departments in the state of Florida have been using it for a couple of decades.

Getting closer to home, the Virginia State Police and the city of Virginia Beach recently admitted, after denying it repeatedly, that their officers used face recognition technology in recent years. As an explanation for the prior denials, the spokesmen for the agency and the city explained that several detectives had taken advantage of free trial offers by a private company and had downloaded the software without the knowledge of their superiors.

Law-enforcement authorities champion the use of facial recognition software as “a way to catch bad guys — you can catch really bad actors — and that’s always a good thing,” as John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, put it.

There are a couple of major problems with this rationale. The first is that of the slippery slope, of the software being used for purposes beyond “catching bad guys.” (See China.) Clearview AI, one of the most aggressive private vendors of facial recognition technology, uses a database of more than 1.3 billion images that it claims to have scraped from Facebook, Venmo, YouTube, and “millions” of other websites. It is not hard to see problems with invasion of privacy arising from the use of such information.

The second problem with the law-enforcement rationale is that studies have shown that the facial recognition programs exhibit a high degree of inaccuracy when it comes to females and darker skin tones. This is another area in which minorities are more subject to wrongful arrest than whites.

It was in response to such concerns that Del. Lachrecse Aird, D-Petersburg,  introduced HB 2031 in the past General Assembly. In its final form, the bill prohibits local law-enforcement agencies and campus police from purchasing or deploying any facial recognition technology, unless specifically authorized by statute. Furthermore, if use is authorized by statute, the technology must be maintained under the exclusive control of the law-enforcement or campus police agency and its data kept confidential. The bill passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature.

Governor Northam has not yet signed the bill into law. Currently, there are two movements underway to persuade him to send the bill back to the General Assembly with proposed amendments. First, John Jones wants the Governor to recommend a re-enactment clause that would require that the bill be approved again next year before becoming effective.

As originally introduced, the bill would have prohibited the use of facial recognition technology by law-enforcement or campus police unless approved by local ordinance or by the governing body of the institution of higher education. It was amended In the Senate to be a statewide ban with any exceptions approved by the General Assembly. Jones claims that he had not been aware of the Senate amendments being adopted. “There’s no exclusion for anything in this bill, and I think it was done too hastily. I just think it goes way too far,” he said. (Excuse me, but John Jones has been representing the Sheriff’s Association for more than 30 years and is one of the most experienced lobbyists working the General Assembly. He is not one to miss something this obvious.)

The other person lobbying the Governor to send the bill back with an amendment is Del. Aird, the bill’s patron. As passed, the bill does not apply to the Virginia State Police. Del. Aird says the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security told her during the session that the State Police were not using the face recognition technology. After learning from the Virginian-Pilot that the department had used the technology, she now is requesting the Governor to propose an amendment that would apply the terms of the legislation to the State Police.

The Governor has until midnight on Wednesday to decide on signing the bill as passed or returning it to the legislature with proposed amendments.

[Note: I am indebted to a story in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch for alerting me to this issue and legislation and providing much of the background detail included in this post.]

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18 responses to “Big Brother Has Been Curtailed”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Don’t forget Peninsula PDs building a database of license plates, posit and time using PD vehicle mounted plate-readers.

    Add in EZPass and you’ve got something. Sonny would be alive today if he had EZPass.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Yep. And the state Supreme Court recently ruled that police can keep the license plate data indefinitely, a directly opposite position that Cuccinelli took.

      By the way, the author of the story in your link is my cousin, a good reporter who saw the writing on the wall a few years ago and took a buyout and retired.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Tracking and recognition software make it smaller.

        Should have caught the name.
        1 Nancy Naive
        2 His daughter
        3 Her friend
        4 the friend’s cousin by marriage, Tina Fey
        5 Kevin Bacon

        You’re in.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        In terms of govt or police “surveillance , consider also, that both of them also rely on PRIVATE cameras… owned by citizens and businesses AND those cameras don’t necessarily have to purge images at all.. can save forever… if they want.

        which means the police don’t have to “keep” facial images at all… they may already be “kept” on a non-police data storage that the police can then access.

        Think about.. a kid is kidnapped and the image of the kidnapper is captured when the kidnap occured – and that image is checked against other cameras like toll roads or Walmarts… or any variety of other locations the kidnapper may go. Thing of it as a super-enhanced version of current day “amber alerts”…. we see on TV and even our cell phones.

        Things like this will engender SUPPORT from the citizens.. they’ll want that ability but at the same time they’ll oppose wrong uses – but they want the technology…..

      3. There are clear license plate covers available which make it very difficult to photograph the plate. As far as I know, clear license plate covers are still legal – tinted ones are not.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          I would doubt that they work. It’s true that with prism effects, a “clear” lens could limit the field of view, like laptop screens that can be viewed from straight on, but 15 dgrees to the side appear blank, but will this prevent photographing? Most of the traffic cams and the plate readers are pointed directly into the line of travel AND they use video, not just the still image they send you in the mail.

          As for tinted plate company covers, the cities are passing up a gold mine here. Those and dangling mirror thingies.

    2. I doubt it. He’d be about 105 years old…

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Dick – you write on an exceedingly important topic and in general your postings are refreshingly NOT culture war or partisan in nature.

    This particular area is a key part of AI – artificial intelligence and some see it as a direct threat to our whole way of life not only with respect to privacy but with respect to work , to labor but that’s another story.

    Facial Recognition is the genie out of the bottle and it’s going to be hard to stop it’s use government or private sector.

    We agreed to surveillance as a society long ago when we decided to put license plates on vehicles. And we knew what we were doing, we wanted to be able to identify vehicles and their owners and it started with human “eyes” only, no “technology” but as time went by, we developed technology to “read” license plates and that was a type of image “recognition” and from that point on, it was inevitable that the technology would get better and be able to recognize other things, now some faces and soon – all kinds.

    Important also to recognize that the “faces” have to be put on a database (just like license plates) in order for a camera to “see” it AND then “compare” it to an existing image.

    So who collects the images to start with and who owns the database they are on.

    Think about this – it can be MORE than the government.

    It could be, for instance, a company that checks people coming to a building to see if they are employees and allowed in or allowed into certain interior places and not others.

    It could be WalMart looking for faces of people caught shoplifting before.

    It could be a homeowner looking at people coming to their house to recognize the owners and their kids and alert to friends or strangers, etc.

    Point is – it’s not only the technology (which cannot be stopped), it’s how it is used and by who.

    A school may want to recognize teachers and kids but also known sex offenders.

    Without going on and on – really important topic and a certain irony for January 6 – where a confluence of things converged, such as who can carry guns and where and where not, who carries cell phones which also can now be “tracked” and then photos and pictures of those who were there.

    So much for worrying about the govt coming to “get your guns”, eh?

    All the guns these guys might have – won’t save them from the govt coming to get them…. one by one…

    How many ARE glad the govt is going through the photos and cell phone records to identify these folks at the Capitol? 😉

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Maybe it will play out with video/cellphone evidence in a current case? One that involves transporting young gulls over sedate lions for immortal porpoises.

      The sins we do two by two are paid for one by one…

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    The last overseas flight is becoming a hazy memory, but facial recognition had become part of the boarding and passport entry process two years ago. Might as well try to stop the wind.

  4. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    I’m glad you wrote on this topic. It is important. London has cameras all over the city. Does anyone know what its experience has been and whether their use has resulted in a reduction in individual liberty? As economist Thomas Sowell has said, there are no solutions to problems, only trade-offs. What about a two year trial with reauthorization dependent on an independent analysis of results?

  5. So there will be one up-side to a never-ending mask mandate – less accurate facial recognition capabilities.

  6. StarboardLift Avatar

    Everyone is at least a little uncomfortable with advances in public data collection until there is a mass shooting.

    1. Matt Adams Avatar
      Matt Adams

      Historically I think the largest catalysts for people willingly given away their rights was 9/11. The passage of the Patriot Act and every subsequent renewal is just proof of that.

      1. StarboardLift Avatar

        Yes. I was going to write “act of terrorism” but I see the demand for answers in Virginia Beach shooting investigation, so I switched to garden variety shootings.

  7. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    On a different note, in an effort to mend fences with Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, today, President Biden gave Mr. McConnell and his wife his beloved dog Major.

    When asked if the dog was up to the task of changing party loyalties, an anonymous White House source said, “Oh yeah, he’s a natural born Republican.”

  8. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    Liberals pride themselves in their tech savvy and superiority of new technology. But only when they like it. Electric cars are In, Facial Recognition is Out. Electricity is In, Chemistry is Out.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Biology is also Out.

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