The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lack of a federal privacy law opens the door to dystopia

Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Talbot demonstrates how his agency used facial recognition software to help solve a crime, at police headquarters in Hillsboro, Ore., on Feb. 22, 2019. (Gillian Flaccus/AP)
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Imagine every one of us could be located using only a photograph, or identified based on the way we walk — that our fingerprints could be scanned from afar, and our productivity assessed remotely as we work. This might sound like a dystopia, but at least one technological juggernaut thinks the vision will sell.

The Post has reported on a pitch deck disseminated by Clearview AI, a facial recognition company that has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the military. The New York Times discovered in 2020 that local police departments were relying on the trove of more than 3 billion photos the under-the-radar business had scraped from the Internet to find potential suspects. Now, Clearview says its client roster has expanded to more than 3,100 law enforcement agencies — but despite past promises to restrict its work to crime-fighting, the company dreams in its presentation of “limitless future applications” outside government. These include tackling “tough physical security problems” in retail, screening gig economy laborers and sizing up potential dates on smartphone apps.

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How feasible these proposals are, especially in the near term, remains unclear. But to an alarming extent, whatever Clearview technically can do — whether it be for law enforcement, the military or a big-box store — it can do legally. No federal law regulates facial recognition, though some cities and states have passed restrictions, and the need for rules that apply everywhere has never been clearer. These strictures could and should allow authorities to harness this tool for public safety while still respecting civil liberties. What private actors can do with facial recognition and other biometric identification tools also must be constrained. But those still-missing guidelines should also arrive in tandem with another legislative goal that legislators can’t seem to score.

The nation desperately needs a federal privacy law: a framework that dictates not merely what companies are permitted to do with specific types of technology, but also how and when they can collect, process and use all the personal data that flows through the Internet. One key to Clearview’s apparent eminence in the realm of facial recognition is how little restraint it has espoused compared with its more mainstream peers in Silicon Valley and Seattle that have limited sales of their technology until risks are reduced. The other key is its vast trove of faces. Amassing these would have been a lot harder with firmer standards in place to keep the surveillance economy in check. Because Congress has failed to do that, we’re inching closer to a world where everyone is being watched.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).