AMU Homeland Security Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

The Use of Facial Recognition Technology by Law Enforcement

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

The use of facial recognition in law enforcement is a topic that is gaining momentum and public attention. However, many people are unfamiliar with how facial recognition technology works or its advantages for law enforcement.

Facial recognition technology enables law enforcement to identify someone by his or her face and can be utilized in several different forms. For example, this technology can be used by law enforcement to aid in identifying someone in real time, such as during traffic stops or while monitoring public areas for potential threats by known suspects. Officers can use their smartphones or tablets to quickly recognize people in the field.

Facial recognition technology can also be used to identify someone from a photograph or video. This type of recognition is a definite and time-saving advantage for law enforcement. Instead of an officer or detective manually going through a large number of photographs or videos, for instance, facial recognition technology can quickly conduct a search through large databases to identify facial features consistent with someone who law enforcement wants to find.

Databases can be developed through mugshots and databases developed with intelligence-led policing initiatives. In addition to increasing the effectiveness of criminal investigations, facial recognition technology can be used in cases involving missing children, unidentified victims, or sex offenders.

Facial Recognition Differs from Biometric Technology

Facial recognition is different than biometric technology, which is used in identifying people through retinal scans or fingerprints. Facial recognition technology can be used to increase public safety by monitoring public places for individuals who may pose a threat based on their presence on a pre-determined list. This identification can be done in real time through live facial recognition technologies and is particularly useful for events where large groups gather in public locations.

How Facial Recognition Works

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, facial recognition technology is based on mathematical algorithms that detect particular, distinct characteristics about someone’s face, such as the distance between someone’s eyes or the shape of their chin. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also notes that this information is converted into a mathematical representation and is compared to other data in a face recognition database. Proper lighting and clear images of someone’s face are important to ensure that an identification based on someone’s face is accurate.

As with any technology, there is a risk of a misidentification. For example, someone could have a twin or facial features could closely resemble two different people. This issue reflects the importance of further investigation to positively identify possible matches made through facial recognition technology.

Furthermore, facial recognition technologies don’t necessarily make a 100% positive identification. Instead, this technology provides a calculation based on a probability match between the unknown person and the face identified in the facial recognition database.

For law enforcement, this probability match provides an investigative lead. To confirm an individual’s identity once facial recognition technology has identified someone with a high probability of being the person the police seek, additional data such as tattoos, scars, and specific demographic information can be used to positively identify that person.

Addressing the Privacy Concerns of Facial Recognition Technology

There has been a lot of controversy involving the use of facial recognition by law enforcement due to privacy concerns. About a year ago, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM announced that they would stop the sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement and asked for federal regulation of the technology. However, Congress has not passed any laws regulating the use of facial recognition by police since then.

Facial recognition is a tool that should be used by law enforcement officers. If a child were kidnapped and there was a possibility of the suspect being located through facial recognition technology in a public area, I don’t know any parents who would not want this tool to be used.

Similar to any other tool in law enforcement, there should be reasonable limits placed on the use of facial recognition technology to prevent broad or unreasonable surveillance uses, especially outside of public areas. Precedents set by case law and the Constitution that are related to other forms of identification or public monitoring technology should be similarly applied to the use of facial recognition. Also, communities, the judicial system and law enforcement should work in collaboration to identify the most appropriate use of facial recognition in law enforcement while ensuring that Fourth Amendment rights are properly preserved.

In our online bachelor of arts in criminal justice program, the University offers curriculum that can be applied to law enforcement ethics involving surveillance and the use of technology in law enforcement. For example, CMRJ308, “Ethics in Criminal Justice,” prepares students to apply ethics and ethical decision making for real-world situations in the criminal justice system. 

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies. He has over 22 years’ experience in the field of homeland security. Jarrod has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Europe, and Central America on the topic of human trafficking, counter terrorism, police responses to domestic terrorism, and police stress management. For more information, please review

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