Is Automated Face Recognition Coming to the US?

Department of Homeland Security documents released in mid-2013 show heavy evidence of research being done by the Department of Homeland Security to develop facial recognition technology that could identify individuals by scanning a crowd. The project is named Biometric Optical Surveillance System - or BOSS - and it could have a major effect on the way large-scale security is handled in the United States.

Using the BOSS technology, the government would be able to scan a large crowd and identify particular individuals. The most commonly sited potential uses for this technology would be to identify known or suspected terrorists that could provide a public threat, or to find fugitives who may be hiding in plain sight. Such technology could be used in any majorly populated area, be it on a typical day in a busy city area like Times Square or a major public event like the Super Bowl or the New Years Eve celebration in Times Square.

This technology would rely heavily on watch lists and known terrorists or problem individuals. The technology essentially would scan an area using robotic camera structures with infrared sensors. These cameras create 3D renderings of individuals by photographing the individual from various angles simultaneously. That 3D signature is then run through a database and matches the face to one on a watch list by comparing distances between various points on the face.

Public fear about the technology is founded, particularly in an era when there is question about the governments proper use of surveillance capability against the public. Given the revelations provided by the leaks from Edward J. Snowden in 2013, the public is very much focused on how much the government sees and - more importantly - how they see it. Privacy issues are of course forefront in the minds of many when it comes to the possibility of facial scanning in large crowds.

Simultaneously, the public has reason to welcome such technology. After a 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon that lead to numerable deaths and long-lasting life-changing injuries for many more, a manhunt through Boston for the suspects lead to residents of the city hiding in their homes for a full day. Not only was this a disruption to the daily lives of those affected, it created a large sense of unease. If we can’t be safe in our own neighborhoods, how could we ever feel secure? One has to wonder, if this technology had existed as the drama in Boston was unfolding, would the manhunt have been abbreviated, and would the further loss of life caused by the bombers after the marathon bombing event have been avoided?

BOSS is not a reality yet, and estimates say we have at least five years before it becomes a possibility. In this era of uncertainty both about our rights to privacy and about our safety - at public events, at school, at the mall - it’s natural that the public should have mixed feelings about the possibility of this technology and the good and bad it could bring for all of us.
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