Against a backdrop of U.S. government agencies abusing unproven and potentially unjust facial recognition technology, a digital rights group on Tuesday called for a “complete” federal ban on the government’s use of this technology.
The group, Fight for the Future, is calling on Americans to contact their state, local, and federal lawmakers using a tool on its newly launched website, BanFacialRecognition.com. Fill out the form, and it will send the message to your representatives:
“Facial recognition surveillance is biased, invasive, and it violates my basic rights. I urge you to pass legislation that bans the government from using this dangerous technology to spy on the American public. Thank you.”
Two cities in the U.S.—San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts—have already banned city government agencies from using facial recognition tech. But federal law enforcement, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are still accessing databases of facial photographs in order to scan for possible matches of targeted individuals. In the case of ICE agents, these search queries weren’t just for those suspected of criminal activity; they also included searches for innocent bystanders, witnesses, and undocumented immigrants, according to internal government documents obtained by Georgetown Law. The photos they scanned were from state driver’s license databases—photos that individuals never gave consent to be used in such an invasive way by law enforcement.
“We’re at a pivotal moment in human history,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, told Gizmodo in an email. “Invasive surveillance technology like facial recognition is spreading extremely quickly. It’s being marketed as ‘convenient’ and for ‘public safety,’ but it’s putting us on a path to a totalitarian police state. Backlash to the spread of face surveillance is growing. But if we don’t act now, it will soon become ubiquitous, and then it could be too late.”
The nonprofit advocacy group, which has historically focused its efforts on net neutrality, is calling for a “complete ban” on government use of facial recognition—not just a moratorium or light regulation. As for what a “complete ban” would look like, Greer said it would mean that “agencies like ICE, the FBI, and local cops can’t use this type of surveillance or conduct dragnet searches like they were just caught doing with DMV drivers license databases.”
Greer also said that a total ban on federal use of this technology would prohibit the government from partnering with companies “that enable law enforcement to access facial recognition information collected by private entities,” citing Amazon as an example. Amazon currently markets its facial recognition software, Rekognition, for “public safety and security” applications and includes at least one police department among its customers.
During an annual Amazon shareholder meeting in May, when stockholders had an opportunity to push for more oversight of this technology, the proposal failed to secure enough votes, to the dismay of civil liberties organizations and worker unions that supported the effort. Conversely, Axon, the largest maker of police body-cameras, recently decided to at least temporarily ban the use of facial recognition in its products. Fight for the Future aims to make such corporate decisionmaking unnecessary.
“This surveillance technology poses such a profound threat to the future of human society and basic liberty that its dangers far outweigh any potential benefits,” Greer said. “We don’t need to regulate it, we need to ban it entirely.”