The New York Times recently reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is developing a 3-D facial recognition surveillance system. According to documents released through a FOIA request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the technology is intended to allow the government to collect, store, and compare images in a variety of situations in order to identify persons on federal watch lists. In a test last fall, the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) had not achieved the level of speed and accuracy required. However, researchers are confident that the system will be ready for use in only a matter of time.
This is the latest in a steady stream of technologies employed by the government to record and monitor ever-expanding aspects of Americans’ lives. Initially intended for military use, the DHS is now developing the technology for domestic police use. It raises significant questions, as Americans become increasingly distrustful of the federal government’s surveillance practices, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) vast electronic surveillance programs. Perhaps most troubling, and yet unsurprising, is that privacy safeguards are not mentioned once in the documents.
Once fully optimized, a few clicks of these cameras would allow police to capture quality images of masses of people from distances of 100 meters. We already know that the FBI monitors constitutionally protected activities such as protests and religious gatherings. And the NYPD is being sued for spying on Muslims at school, work and play. BOSS would vastly enhance law enforcement officers’ abilities to track countless residents, encompassing ever more individuals who choose to engage in their communities. Locally, it promises to add to an already spectacular level of surveillance, as frighteningly illustrated in Oakland’s forthcoming Domain Awareness Center.
Faster and more accurate surveillance technology will serve to further chill political and religious speech, as people are forced to expose themselves to scanners, cameras, and soon BOSS, whenever they leave their homes. That’s not to mention the illegal monitoring already happening in the home, of the public’s phone, email and other internet-based communications. Without adequate restrictions, this new technology will fundamentally violate Americans’ constitutional right to privacy and widen the door for federal agencies and the police to continue profiling and targeting select communities without reasonable suspicion.
Although it may be years before BOSS comes to a police department near you, now is the time for communities to demand strong safeguards for civil liberties. As the New York and Oakland examples illustrate, local law enforcement is certainly not waiting to up its surveillance efforts. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee developed the Local Civil Rights Restoration (LCRR) toolkit, which provides model legislation that cities across the country can adopt to restrict local law enforcement’s ability to surveil residents. It’s a powerful way to reverse encroaching state surveillance, and join the movement to reclaim our civil rights.