Future Tense Newsletter: This Government Facial Recognition System May Be Using Your Photo

The camera on a facial recognition device, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in the background at Miami International Airport.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Greetings, Future Tensers,

Thought all the revelations about Facebook scanning user photos or IBM quietly scraping images from sites like Flickr to help power their facial recognition systems were bad? It gets worse. As researchers Os Keyes, Nikki Stevens, and Jacqueline Wernimont reported this week, the U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology has been using images of abused children, U.S. visa applicants, and dead arrestees as part of its Facial Recognition Verification Testing program.* What’s more, the agency’s been doing it all without the knowledge of the people in those photographs. The three write about the harms that come from the government’s use of these nonconsensual images.

Speaking of privacy issues, we at Future Tense have also been examining how genetic genealogy—that new DNA family tree tool that’s been instrumental in cracking cold cases like the Golden State Killer—may be changing the future of law enforcement investigations. Nila Bala explains why criminal suspects deserve privacy, even as law enforcement is increasingly turning to online genetic databases. Natalie Ram advocates for closing the loopholes that have allowed law enforcement to take advantage of the DNA profiles people have been uploading to public genealogy websites. And Benjamin Berkman explores how consumers can better inform themselves about the privacy risks behind sharing their own genetic data.

Other things we read while trying to avoid crashing our e-scooters:

Face ID forensics: New information revealed that the FBI attempted to get a warrant to use former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s fingerprints and face to obtain access to his iPhone. Can the agency do that?

Apocalypse now: Harrison Cook explains what happened when the popular online video game Plague Inc. added a new tool to help players achieve their goal of eradicating the (virtual) human race: anti-vaxxers.

Last words: ICU physician Joel Zivot pens a defense of telling patients they’re dying via a robot.

User agreement: Uberland author Alex Rosenblat explains how Uber treats its drivers the way cell phone companies treat their customers.

Lost in translation: Tamara Evdokimova looks at Crypto, a new crime movie about bitcoin that … doesn’t seem to get bitcoin.

Cure coupons: Shannon Palus explains why one of the eeriest parts of the new Elizabeth Holmes documentary involves a creepy commercial for Theranos gift cards.


TONIGHT: Could your at-home DNA test be used to crack a cold case? Join Future Tense tonight in D.C. for a happy hour conversation on how genetic genealogy—the use of DNA testing in conjunction with family-tree mapping—has become the new cutting-edge technology for solving decades-old crimes. We’ll be joined by the host of the hit true crime podcast Bear Brook and experts on DNA, law enforcement, and privacy. RSVP or stream online here.

To this lordly definition of algorithm,

Anthony Nguyen
For Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Correction, March 21, 2019: This piece originally misstated that the NIST has been using nonconsensually obtained images to train its Facial Recognition Verification Testing program. The NIST does not develop or train facial recognition systems. It only provides independent government evaluations of prototype face recognition technologies.

Correction, March 22, 2019: This newsletter originally misstated that boarding photos from airports had been used as a data set for testing facial recognition algorithms. The article that the newsletter refers to has been corrected to say that those images came from a Department of Homeland Security scenario and involved volunteers.