Just How Dangerous is Facial Profiling?

Within the next 60 days, state law enforcement agencies across the nation are set to implement a new facial profiling technology that will enable them to scan faces of people in a crowd and cross-check this scan data with information already in their databases. Simply by equipping a so-called MORIS ("Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System") device to an iPhone, it will be possible to scan faces from as far as five feet away and perform iris scans at distances of six inches or less. The same technology that makes it possible to spot an Al Qaeda insurgent in Afghanistan or nab a suspected terrorist in New York City also makes it possible to nab an undocumented migrant worker in El Paso or Laredo. And therein lies the problem.


Facial profiling is, if not used properly, as dangerous to our privacy and civil liberties as racial profiling. Which faces will police officers scan in a crowd? And when do law enforcement agents have the right to scan your irises? Having your iris scanned, as some have suggested, is tantamount to being fingerprinted in public – and potentially, without you even knowing about it. Of course, as Emily Steel and Julia Angwin point out in the Wall Street Journal, taking photos of people passing through a public space is fully enabled by law. And it’s perfectly acceptable for a law enforcement to stop and detain someone if they have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed - or is about to be committed.

But what if they just don’t like your face? (Maybe you forgot to shave that morning, and your ironic hipster beard is starting to look a little too much like an Osama beard.)

Getting stopped and detained raises a whole host of other legal questions related to search-and-seizure. Do you have the right to resist an iris scan if you have been detained? Thus far, the courts have not yet had to rule on face- and iris-recognition technology. But, as law professor Orin Kerr from George Washington University points out, "A warrant might be required to force someone to open their eyes."

It’s perfectly possible that Facial Profiling by law enforcement authorities will cause a civil libertarian uproar. Just think of the TSA pat-down procedures at airports. How many of us enjoy getting a little extra grope on the way to our planes? If we think full-body scanners are invasive enough, what about a bunch of Bad Lieutenants in Arizona having a little fun with their new iPhone toy?

Every time a technology company comes up with an innovative new way to “protect” us, we move further into a civil liberties gray area. Nearly a decade ago, when Oracle announced plans for a national ID card, Larry Ellison came under a firestorm of commentary. Even as recently as the past 18 months, when companies like Facebook and Google have developed new facial recognition technologies that enable us to "tag" our friends in photos, there has been murmurs of dissent from privacy and civil libertarian activists.

At the end of the day, facial recognition technology doesn't profile people, people do. Some would argue that the more that law enforcement authorities know about us, the freer we are. They will be better able to protect us from the evil forces of Al Qaeda circulating in our midst. Yet, at some level, that argument begins to sound a bit Orwellian. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. So just how dangerous is facial profiling?

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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