Don’t Let Your Face Turn You In
by Nat Hentoff
The science fiction I used to read years ago was only mildly adventurous and rather amusing compared to our government’s real-life bag of tricks. Did you know that high-tech wizardry is making us instantly and suspiciously recognizable to Big Brother?
Brace yourself for “FBI’s Facial Recognition Is Coming to a State Near You,” a chilling report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That digital watchdog group is the most alert and knowledgeable protector of what’s left of our individual liberties, which have been imperiled by the government’s systematic target-killing of the Constitution. By expanding its Next Generation Identification program (NGI), the FBI now has a “massive biometrics database that combines fingerprints, iris scans, palm prints, facial recognition and extensive biographical data collected from over 100 million Americans.”
Just imagine the reactions of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry if they could have foretold that the nation they were founding would eventually have a government keeping close track of almost one-third of its citizens. Without a doubt, many more millions are destined to be added to what promises to be ever-growing databases. I expect Jefferson would have torn up the Declaration of Independence he’d drafted in 1776 as a prelude to starting another revolution.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation discloses that in its surge to make NGI more wide-ranging, “the FBI is developing ‘Universal Face Workstation software’ to allow states that don’t have their own ‘Face/Photo search capabilities’ to search through the FBI’s images.”
Now dig this: You don’t have to be arrested or even “a person of interest” to be in this FBI gallery, which I’m convinced will be open to searches by all other law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
As the EFF notes: “This suggests the FBI wants to be able to search and identify people in photos of crowds and in pictures posted on social media sites—even if the people in those photos haven’t been arrested for or even suspected of a crime. The FBI may also want to incorporate those crowd or social media photos into its face-recognition database.”
Why not? To the FBI, anyone in those photos may be thinking of committing a crime someday against national security. When the time comes for them to be busted, there they’ll be!
Perhaps you believe all this data-collecting for facial recognition is being done only here at home. The Electronic Frontier Foundation knows better: “The FBI already has information-sharing relationships with 77 countries,” and its Criminal Justice Information Services “is now trying to partner with ‘Visa Waiver Program countries’ like Ireland, Spain and Australia to allow automatic access to each other’s biometric databases on a ‘hit/no hit basis.’”
I wholeheartedly agree with the EFF’s conclusion that “the time is right for laws that limit face-recognition data collection.”
What’s long overdue are laws prohibiting the various forms of FBI, National Security Agency and CIA dragnet surveillance I’ve reported here. But neither Democratic Presidents nor Democratic-majority Congresses have done anything remotely substantial. Nor have Republicans. Nor is there any credible evidence that President Obama and the current Congress will do a damn realistic thing about this during the commander in chief’s second term.
I’ve already warmed my imagination by picturing how our Founding Fathers would have acted. But I see no prospects of citizens seized by a passionate knowledge of American history putting sustained pressure on Congress to wipe the FBI’s facial-recognition program off the statute books.
What has happened to this nation conceived and nurtured by the Declaration of Independence? Astonishingly, citizen passivity continues to mount. In my book Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee, I quoted Ronald Reagan: “We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. … If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Where is the American spirit while the White House and Congress treat our “guaranteed” Constitutional liberties like garbage?