Opinion: California Smartly Moves to Bring Checks and Balances to Surveillance

April 08, 2017


Orange County Register
Guest Commentary by Eric Boehm of Reason.com and Reason Magazine

During military action in Iraq, the U.S. deployed iris scanners to collect and track the identities of Iraqi civilians arrested for any offense. By 2013, the same technology was being used here at home, as the FBI, with the help of local police departments, launched a pilot program to collect a massive database of iris scans.

At the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, the FBI found some of their most willing collaborators. According to a report published last year by The Verge, the department was entering nearly 200 new irises into its database each day; more than 200,000 were collected from arrestees in just 2 1/2 years.

And all of it was done without any public debate, and without approval from local or state governments, which have been largely kept in the dark as the FBI has deployed advanced surveillance technology into police departments.

Iris scanners are quicker and easier than fingerprints, but serve the same function because every human has a unique set of ridges and grooves on the surface of their eyes. But it’s hardly just irises that the FBI is collecting. It has agreements with 18 states to share photos from state driver’s license databases, and a Government Accountability Office report revealed that as many as 64 million Americans might be entered into the FBI’s facial recognition database without knowing it.

When you include similar databases maintained by state and local law enforcement agencies, one in every two American adults is included in a facial recognition network, the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law concluded in a recent report.

In California, some state lawmakers want to bring some of that surveillance out into the open.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would require police and sheriff’s departments to explain to local officials how they use surveillance technology like facial recognition programs and social media trackers.

The disclosures would have to be made at an open, public hearing.

“We want to be able to protect our civil liberties, defend and protect our Constitution, and make sure law enforcement will have the tools available that will enable them to fight crime in our communities,” Hill said last month.

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