Face Recognition Technology Follows a Long Analog History of Surveillance and Control Based on Identifying Physical Features

American Amara Majeed was accused of terrorism by the Sri Lankan police in 2019. Robert Williams was arrested outside his house in Detroit and detained in jail for 18 hours for allegedly stealing watches in 2020. Randal Reid spent six days in jail in 2022 for supposedly using stolen credit cards in a state he’d never even visited.

In all three cases, the authorities had the wrong people. In all three, it was face recognition technology that told them they were right. Law enforcement officers in many U.S. states are not required to reveal that they used face recognition technology to identify suspects.

Face recognition technology is the latest and most sophisticated version of biometric surveillance: using unique physical characteristics to identify individual people. It stands in a long line of technologies — from the fingerprint to the passport photo to iris scans — designed to monitor people and determine who has the right to move freely within and across borders and boundaries.

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