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Facial recognition is becoming a key investigative tool for police departments across the United States as protestors fill the streets following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.

Law enforcement agencies have existing networks of surveillance cameras and body cameras worn by officers, as well as face- and object-recognition software. Large retail and food chains have similar security systems and traditionally will share footage with police if it is part of an investigation. Protesters and journalists shoot their own videos on smartphones or small cameras such as GoPros, according to washingtonpost.com.

Law enforcement agencies with extensive facial recognition capabilities are now asking the public for footage of activists. Police in Seattle, Austin, and Dallas, as well as the FBI, have all asked for video or images that can be used to find violence and destruction during protests.

The facial recognition systems most commonly sold to local law enforcement compare a face to photos in an existing database held by the police, typically consisting of mugshots.

Law enforcement officials widely maintain that facial recognition is just one of many tools used to solve crimes. But because there are no federal or state laws that require transparency for government use of facial recognition technology, there’s no way to know how the technology is being used or which law enforcement departments have access to it, according to onezero.medium.com.

Privacy activists and those attending protests have been concerned that the images would be run through facial recognition software. These capabilities allow law enforcement to find the identity of anyone who has had mugshots taken and stored, or had been previously incarcerated, against photos in police databases.

In some states, like Florida, police can search against drivers license photos, according to the Georgetown Center for Privacy and Technology. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department in Florida runs 8,000 facial recognition searches per month against the database of 7 million drivers in Florida, according to Georgetown’s Perpetual Lineup project.

Federal agencies have also been called to assist in the surveillance of protesters.

Chad Wolf, the acting department of homeland security secretary, said that CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be deployed to help state and local enforcement across the country with surveillance, according to CBS News.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and ICE, manages one of the country’s largest facial recognition databases, called IDENT. It houses the identities of more than 250 million people, taken from international airport arrivals and other border crossings. The DHS is working to be able to access more than 300 million additional people’s identities held by other federal agencies, though it can already access many of those by formally partnering with the agencies on an investigation.

The FBI has access to a facial recognition database of more than 640 million images and is being sued by the ACLU for documents detailing how the technology is used.

Real-world tests of facial recognition technology have shown flawed results. In a trial of NEC’s real-time facial recognition in London, an independent analysis found that 81% of 42 people flagged by the algorithm were not actually on a watchlist.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the question is do face masks help protect the identities of protestors? Facial recognition companies have begun to make facial recognition that can identify people wearing a mask. While the technology was initially marketed by companies like Rank One Computing for identifying those in masks at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the technology was widely distributed and could be used for other means.