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Privacy And Civil Rights Groups Ask The US Government To End Its Use Of Facial Recognition Tech On The Public

“There’s a reason your local police department doesn’t have access to missiles and carpet bombs. [Congress] should act now to ban this dangerous surveillance weapon.”

Last updated on July 9, 2019, at 6:11 p.m. ET

Posted on July 9, 2019, at 5:03 p.m. ET

David McNew / AFP / Getty Images

A live demo at CES 2019 in Las Vegas.

A coalition of privacy and civil liberties organizations this week called on the US Department of Homeland Security to suspend its use of facial recognition on the general public. Public campaigns — one organized by digital rights group Fight for the Future, and another by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and others — were launched ahead of a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday to question officials with the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service for the agencies’ broad use of the technology in the US.

“The use of face recognition technology by the DHS poses serious risks to privacy and
civil liberties, threatens immigrants, broadly impacts American citizens, and has been
implemented without proper safeguards in place or explicit Congressional approval,” the letter from EPIC, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mijente, and others stated. “The
technology is being deployed today by authoritarian governments as a tool to suppress speech
and monitor critics, minorities, and everyday citizens. Congress should not permit the continued
use of face recognition in the United States absent safeguards to prevent such abuses.”

Fight for the Future, meanwhile, launched a website and called for a complete federal ban on facial recognition. “People shouldn’t be subjected to authoritarian government surveillance just because their local city council failed to act. Congress has the authority to impose basic limits on what law enforcement across the country can do,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a reason your local police department doesn’t have access to missiles and carpet bombs. [Congress] should act now to ban this uniquely dangerous surveillance weapon.”

Facial recognition technology has been subjected to increasing scrutiny across the country, as civil rights activists and technologists sound the alarm over inaccuracies and concerns that the tech only serves to entrench societal biases. Two MIT Media Lab studies found that facial recognition systems from top tech companies routinely struggle to tell the gender of female faces and of darker-skinned faces in photos. In May, San Francisco banned police from using facial recognition; two months later, the city council of Somerville, Massachusetts, voted to do the same. Amazon, the purveyor of a tool called Rekognition, has faced persistent public pressure for its aggressive marketing of its facial recognition tech to law enforcement agencies.

But even if facial recognition technology was 100% accurate, Fight for the Future’s Greer told BuzzFeed News, it would still pose a profound threat to the public. “Ubiquitous biometric surveillance is uniquely dangerous,” she said. “It enables governments to track and control their populations at an unprecedented scale. Without private spaces that are free from computerized prying eyes, there is no space for creativity, expression, or deviation from the norm, and thus no potential for social progress.”

The debate over the merits and pitfalls of the technology is hardly a new one in Washington. Two months ago, a House Oversight Committee hearing drew bipartisan support for taking a closer look at the tech from the likes of both Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, the current ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “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,” Ocasio-Cortez told BuzzFeed News at the time, referring to the tech giants Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

More recently, a report from the Washington Post showed that government agencies themselves, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have been conducting warrantless searches of state driver’s license databases without American citizens’ knowledge or consent.

“Any use of face recognition by the government should be strictly limited and come with robust safeguards in place,” Jeramie Scott, director of EPIC’s Domestic Surveillance Project, told BuzzFeed News. “[It’s] a dangerous technology that has serious implications for our privacy and constitutionally protected rights ... Congress should treat it as such.”

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    Davey Alba is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. While working for BuzzFeed News, she won the 2019 Livingston Award for international reporting.

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