Face Recognition Face-Off How activists identify police with face recognition

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Face recognition system identifying cops

Private citizens are using AI-driven surveillance to turn the tables on law enforcement.

What’s new: Activists are using face recognition to identify abusive cops, according to The New York Times.

How it works: Many jurisdictions allow police to wear face masks or conceal their name tags, a practice that critics say protects officers who use excessive force against citizens. Activists around the world are using off-the-shelf software and crowdsourced datasets to develop systems that identify cops in photos and videos.

  • In Portland, Oregon, self-taught coder Christopher Howell built a face recognition system that he used to identify at least one local officer. He does not plan to make it available to the public. Trained on images gathered from news, social media, and a public database called Cops.Photos, the model recognizes about 20 percent of the city’s police, he said. Portland law enforcement has been accused of improperly using pepper spray, and smoke grenades, and assaulting journalists.
  • Belarusian AI researcher Andrew Maximov built a system that identifies masked officers by matching visible features to photos on social media. Police in Belarus have violently suppressed crowds in recent weeks.
  • Last year, Hong Kong protester Colin Cheung posted a video that demonstrates a tool he built to identify officers who operated without badges.

Behind the news: Police use of face recognition, such as the previously undisclosed DC-area system reported this week by the The Washington Post, has come under intense scrutiny. Public outcry has led to restrictions in some countries.

Why it matters: Like many powerful technologies, face recognition is a double-edged sword. In the hands of private citizens, it could help increase police accountability and stem abuses. But it could also lead to harassment and worse against cops and others who have done nothing wrong.

We’re thinking: It seems inevitable that ordinary citizens would harness face recognition to fight back against cops who allegedly have abused human or civil rights. Democratization of technology is a wonderful thing, but it comes with important responsibilities. Individuals — as well as governments and businesses — need to take care to use face recognition ethically.


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