Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she is “absolutely concerned” that widespread facial recognition surveillance could eventually be used as a form of social control — and that Big Tech could have a hand in pushing such a scenario to arrive sooner. Speaking to the press after a House Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday, which aimed to examine the use of facial recognition technology by the government and commercial entities, Ocasio-Cortez said that facial recognition is “tied to the political reality that there is a global rise in authoritarianism and fascism.”
“I don’t want to see an authoritarian surveillance state, whether it’s run by a government or whether it’s run by five corporations,” she said, referencing the five most recognizable American tech companies: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. All five companies have worked on private and public facial recognition platforms, although one — Amazon — has been especially aggressive in marketing its own tool, Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies, from the Orlando Police Department to the FBI.
The House Oversight Committee hearing comes at a time when concerns over the impact of facial recognition technology on civil rights are reaching a fever pitch. In the US, there are no laws currently governing the use of facial recognition, which has been implemented not just by law enforcement agencies, but by airports, retailers, and even schools. There is no regulatory framework limiting the tech’s law enforcement applications. There is no developed case law or constitutional precedent upholding police use of facial recognition without a warrant. When arrests are made on the basis of this technology, the people who are arrested aren’t informed.
“This is insulating this tech from the judicial review that it sorely needs,” Neema Giuliani, legislative counsel at the ACLU, said during the congressional hearing.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft for comment.
Ocasio-Cortez said she also “feels hopeful” that the proper implementation of facial recognition tech is something the House will continue to debate, because the issue “isn’t necessarily going to be along party lines.” During the hearing, bipartisan support for taking a closer look at the use of the tech was clear. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, the current ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, publicly supported holding the hearing. At one point, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows said figuring out how to handle the growing influence of facial recognition in the US “hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together.”
Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee responded, “That’s music to my ears.”
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, one of the most vocal members of Congress when it comes to the issue of facial recognition, said his office has met with Amazon over civil rights concerns of its facial recognition platform nine times. The result, which he testified to during the hearing, was that his “concerns only grow day by day.”
Gomez told BuzzFeed News in an interview that his office had made “very little progress” since it started reaching out to Amazon one year ago. “We still have a lot of questions, and they haven’t really answered all of them. Some of them they’re not going to answer, like the practices and tests that they run,” he said. “But I’ve warned them that this issue is percolating and picking up steam throughout the country.”
“People, I think, inherently want to live in a country where they can walk down the street, or participate in a protest, or peacefully assemble, where [the government or powerful companies] don’t know who they are,” Gomez said.
“With this technology, that might go away. That’s the big fear on both sides — whether you’re a pro-choice protester or an NRA protester.”
Ocasio-Cortez, for her part, said both a woman’s right to choose and a citizen’s right to keep their face away from mass surveillance concern issues of privacy. During the hearing, the representative said the privacy concern in Roe v. Wade doesn’t just relate to “my uterus, my shoulders, my hands, my knees, and my toes” but also “my face.”
“In our right to privacy, this is about our right to our entire body,” Ocasio-Cortez said. ●