Facial Recognition Technology – a ban on its use by public safety would serve us poorly

Facial recognition technology (FRT) is under fire as part of a civil suit filed by the ACLU yesterday. FRT is an invaluable public safety tool, which should be preserved through reasonable restrictions in policy and law, not banned as critics have proposed.

Facial recognition technology (FRT) was first developed in the 1960s and like every other technology, it has improved greatly since its inception. FRT compares facial images of unknown individuals to facial images of known and unknown individuals. The technology has become commonplace in phone apps and other everyday uses that make our lives better through improved efficiency, security, and safety.

In the public safety realm, FRT leverages technology to point law enforcement to possible matches, called “leads.” A lead is NOT a confirmation of positive identification, and an FRT “lead” is not to be considered probable cause for an arrest. It simply points law enforcement to possible matches for law enforcement investigators to then conduct a follow-up investigation and either corroborate or rule out an identification. FRT can also be used in other public safety applications such as searching for missing persons, etc.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office began using the technology about ten years ago as part of its Criminal Information Sharing and Analysis unit (CISA). In that time, FRT has been used by CISA to assist law enforcement in the identification process of a great many criminal suspect leads — a process that used to rely solely on the hope that investigators were familiar enough with local criminals that a likely suspect would come to mind as a starting point for a lead. This made for great Kojak episodes, but the process of identifying a suspect lead has certainly improved with the use of FRT.

Some of the criticisms and concerns with FRT are that it can lead to false identifications, or that law enforcement could misuse it by monitoring protestors involved in constitutionally protected activity. These are valid concerns that law enforcement must keep in mind as it develops and applies strict policies around the use of FRT.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office proactively developed a policy to guide and restrict its use of FRT.

To protect the value FTR provides to public safety, the Minnesota legislature should also adopt a law that appropriately restricts, but not prohibits, the use of FRT. Unfortunately, the 2023 DFL-led legislature introduced legislation in 2023 that sought to ban rather than restrict the use of FRT by public safety.

It is unfortunate that FRT is being at least partially blamed for a false arrest in the ACLU case referenced above. Although the details of the case are just emerging, it appears clear that FRT was NOT used in the case, and that the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office informed law enforcement investigators of that fact prior to their arrest of a robbery suspect. 

It will be important for the future of FRT in Minnesota for these facts to be determined conclusively. Banning FRT, especially as the result of a case it wasn’t used in, would be great a disservice to public safety and to all Minnesotans.

Policy and law makers should move thoughtfully through the issues surrounding FRT and restrict, not prohibit, its use in public safety.