Constitution must preserve individual liberties first

Editorial

Face-scanning technology for police to compare the faces of thousands of passersby with mostly driver’s license photos on file to find known criminals is of serious concern to civil libertarians — and for good reason.

As was reported last week, the technology, designed for Arizona law-enforcement agencies, operates on everyone who comes under its gaze — without probable cause.

That is, it may be used in situations where police have no reason to suspect criminals will or even might be present. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was written and since has been interpreted by the courts as a safeguard against overbroad police activity, including the power of arrest.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano defended the system by saying that police already have access to the driver’s license photo database and can compare those photos with images taken at the U.S.-Mexico border or at airports.

But even more cameras in many other public places would be eligible for comparisons as well. We can imagine all manner of public places where thousands of innocent people’s faces would be photographed and compared to a database, from shopping malls to sports venues.

A spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said that if no match is found between a criminal’s face in police files and a photographed person in a public place, no permanent record is made.

But would “no permanent record” be the result of a policy subject to change by police, or a practice required by law?

In this day and age, we have become used to being photographed by both private and public means when we are outside our own doors.

To deter crime, private businesses have set up monitoring equipment on their property, upon which we enter with their permission.

When it is the government doing the photographing, any infringement on individual freedom to be in a public place must pass muster under the Fourth Amendment.

Certainly such technology is useful when law-enforcement personnel can provide a proper reason to believe that criminals or terrorists may be threatening a certain place at a certain time. But we are far from convinced that this technology, as it has been publicly described, passes the probable-cause test.

No matter how efficient or even effective this technology might be, our Constitution was not written to create an efficient or even an effective government, but a limited one. It must preserve individual liberty first. It may not under vague circumstances jeopardize that liberty in the name of security.