Rep. Elijah Cummings wants to know all about Baltimore's use of facial recognition technology

Congressman wants facial recognition documents from Baltimore, nine other cities

Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has quietly asked 10 cities, including Baltimore, to send him all documents relating to the use of facial recognition equipment in their jurisdictions. 

"The large scale recording, retention, and use of biometric information by law enforcement raises serious privacy concerns and may implicate the Fourth Amendment," the letter, which is dated May 17 and signed by both Cummings, who is the ranking member of the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the committee’s chairman, reads in part. "While this software has the potential to be a powerful tool for identifying dangerous criminals, measures must be in place to avoid unnecessary intrusion into innocent citizens' privacy."

The letter requests seven broad categories of documents, beginning with "All policies, guidance, and memoranda referring or relating to the use or potential use of facial recognition technology" and ending with "An inventory of Baltimore's facial recognition technology that shows:

  1. The total number of facial recognition technology systems in possession of or accessible by law enforcement and other authorized city of officials; 

  2. The name and manufacturer of the facial recognition technology; 

  3. Date of purchase and dates for any time the technology was updated; 

  4. The cost of each cial recognition technology system and the total amount spent in fiscal years2011-2016on acquiring and using cial recognition tec ology; and 

  5. Whether the purchase of the technology was funded partly or wholly through a federal grant." 


The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for Cummings could not immediately say whether the request had been fulfilled. The deadline to meet the request is May 31. Cummings' committee held a hearing on the technology in March. 

Besides Baltimore, letters were sent to the mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., according to the website Biometricupdate.com.

The letter to Mayor Catherine Pugh makes reference to a Baltimore Sun story last fall which questioned whether the technology presents a potential privacy violation, and cited research indicating the software's algorithms do not distinguish as well between African-American faces as it does white faces. 

A think tank at the Georgetown Law School also raised concerns about the technology. 

Maryland police have used facial recognition software to search an FBI database with about half of all Americans’ drivers license photos since about 2011, but the program was little-noticed before the American Civil Liberties Union in California published documents showing that the system was used in Baltimore during the protests and riots following Freddie Gray’s death in April of 2015. 

Last August, Bloomberg News described the Baltimore Police Department’s use of Persistent Surveillance Systems, a powerful camera mounted inside a single-engine aircraft that can track individuals’ movements on the ground.  

Federal courts have held that people on public streets have no reasonable expectation of privacy, but as technology becomes more ubiquitous and potentially intrusive—as in a database with millions of photos of ordinary people, not suspected of any crimes, which can be scanned in minutes to match and put a name to the face of someone the police want to identify—the judges have become more circumspect. In "circumstances involving dramatic technological change, the best solution to privacy concerns may be legislative," Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in one such case. "A legislative body is well situated to gauge changing public attitudes, to draw detailed lines, and to balance privacy and public safety in a comprehensive way."


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