Late last month it was reported that Raytown, a Kansas City suburb, is beginning to use facial recognition software on the surveillance cameras in its high schools. The school district is reportedly seeking a half-million-dollar grant from the Justice Department to implement the technology on video feeds from all of its nearly 1,000 cameras, including those in elementary and middle schools.
Raytown is on the Missouri side of the state line, but if face recognition hasn’t yet appeared in Kansas schools, the state revenue department, at least, has been using it for half a decade.
Other forms of surveillance have also become more widespread in recent years. In 2016, the Kansas Highway Patrol began installing automated license plate readers (ALPRs) on the Kansas Turnpike that connects Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City. Last month, Kansas Turnpike CEO Steve Hewitt visited Pittsburg for an event at Block22, where he promoted the K-Tag, which allows drivers to bypass toll booths on the turnpike.
"This allows our customers to continue flow, save money, save time," Hewitt said last year, in remarks similar to those he made in Pittsburg in August. "Obviously if you have a K-Tag you save up to 25% in tolls, but what do you get for that? We're allowing these high-speed lanes to help our customers and it's also safe, relieves the congestion on these busy I-70 corridors." Videos promoting the K-Tag and explaining enforcement of “open road tolling,” featuring cheerful music and lighthearted animations, are viewable on the Kansas Turnpike Authority’s website.
While avoiding toll booths may be an appealing argument for installing license plate scanners on roads, and arguments to be made for increasing surveillance in schools are equally obvious, so is the tendency of those promoting these plans to focus solely on their benefits.
"You would have the sex offender registry, you would have trespass individuals, expelled individuals, suspended individuals,” said Travis Hux, Raytown’s school district assistant superintendent, in explaining plans to implement face recognition. “Those would be where we would start with this."
As has been evident from the rapid expansion of surveillance technology nationwide in recent years, however, where these plans start can by no means be guaranteed to be anywhere near where they end.
In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden divulged extensive information on many of the federal government’s most sensitive surveillance programs. Regardless of your views of Snowden personally, the information he released has now been in the public domain for years. And as many have noted, any terrorist posing a serious threat to US security likely had an idea of most of these NSA capabilities previously, even if they didn’t know their codenames.
Those 2013 disclosures included that major tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook routinely provided information on their US customers to the NSA. A tool called XKeyscore allowed federal agents “to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals,” it was reported at that time. These capabilities grew out of earlier prototypes such as the “Carnivore” program, first deployed in the 1990s, which were then expanded in the name of fighting terrorism under the PATRIOT Act, passed in the wake of the notorious September 11, 2001 attacks whose 18th anniversary we recently commemorated.
Though much has become known in recent years about these kinds of surveillance technologies and how they are used – or misused – at the federal level, civil libertarians’ efforts to rein them in have seemingly had little effect. In June, for example, it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to maintain a photo database of hundreds of millions of Americans’ faces, only a small fraction of whom have been arrested or investigated in any criminal probe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few privacy safeguards appear to have been put in place limiting the FBI’s use of this data.
Five years ago, while working as a statehouse correspondent for a newspaper in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, about an hour’s drive from Boston, I had an interesting conversation with a local police officer. After revealing that his department had three vehicles equipped with automated license plate readers, which he insisted had “solved some major crimes,” Sgt. Glenn Fossa told me that speaking personally, outside his police role, he was “blown away” by the steady advance of surveillance technology – “for better or for worse” – since he was a teenager growing up in the 1970s. “I think it’s a much broader discussion,” he said.
My experience as part of a team reporting on a bigger city government’s approach to these issues later that year was significantly more unsettling. The Boston Police Department flat out lied to us about its collaboration with IBM in an experiment to use facial recognition on unwitting crowds attending a downtown concert.
Unfortunately, when it comes to surveillance, more often than not it seems government agencies – from police departments to tax bureaus to school districts – would rather simply acquire whatever new technology becomes available – from private companies only too willing to indulge them – rather than have that uncomfortable, broader discussion about the tradeoffs we make between safety and liberty. Surveillance is a slippery slope. If we cannot have these necessary debates, it won’t be long before we find ourselves in a dystopian future that none of us should be content to live in.