More than thirty organizations on Thursday called for a nationwide ban against government use of face recognition calling the technology “unreliable, biased, and a threat to basic rights and safety.”
Led by Fight for the Future, a U.S. digital rights organization, the coalition intends to muster its 15 million combined members to flood the inboxes and phone lines of congressional lawmakers to press for a federal ban on the controversial technology.
The extent to which law enforcement across the country have implemented facial recognition remains largely a mystery. An investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last year revealed that Amazon, maker of facial recognition software called Rekognition, has required a sheriff’s department in Oregon to sign non-disclosure agreements, preventing the public from learning about its use.
“Facial recognition is one of the most authoritarian and invasive forms of surveillance ever created, and it’s spreading like an epidemic,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future. “No amount of regulation can fix the dangers inherent in this form Big Brother automaton. We need to ban this technology outright, treat it like biological or nuclear weapons, and prevent it from proliferating before it’s too late.”
The campaign is taking a hard-line approach to the issue. Other groups this year, including the ACLU, have lobbied lawmakers to institute a moratorium on the technology until strong regulations can be passed to safeguard civil liberties.
As for what those regulations would look like, most policy experts are hard-pressed to say. The fact that little is known about how facial recognition is already being applied has created an information gap that makes crafting acceptable policies nearly impossible. The ACLU has called for increased transparency around its application followed by a rigorous debate. In the meantime, it wants the technology banned.
Companies with skin in the game like Amazon and Microsoft have also pressed Congress to act. But privacy advocates are largely suspicious of their motives. “Big Tech companies are disingenuously calling for ‘regulation’ of facial recognition because they want help write the laws to make sure they’re friendly to their business models,” Greer said.
“You can’t fix it with regulation,” she added. “It must be banned.”
The coalition includes groups such as Color of Change, Demand Progress, Free Press Action, the Muslim Justice League, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). In its announcement on Thursday, it said the technology itself is far too error-prone, making it inherently dangerous for women and people of color in particular.
“Countless studies indicate that facial recognition is unreliable technology, that it doesn’t accurately identify people with darker skin complexions - especially women - and so we know that this technology will impact Black and brown communities in particularly dangerous ways,” said Myaisha Hayes, national organizer on criminal justice & tech at MediaJustice.
Last year, the ACLU conducted a study using a face recognition software created by Amazon falsely matched 28 members of Congress with criminal mugshots. Lawmakers with darker skin only made 20 percent of the sample, yet were falsely matched 39 percent of the time.
Three U.S. cities—Oakland, San Francisco, and Somerville, Massachusetts—have already banned the technology’s use outright. Officials in a fourth city, Cambridge, are similarly pursuing a ban. State-level legislation is also gaining momentum in several states, including California, Michigan, and New York.
In March, the ACLU drew attention to a Florida case in which a Black man named Willie Lynch was arrested and charged with selling drugs based on the recommendations of a facial recognition algorithm. The group highlighted the fact that Lynch was not allowed to challenge the technology’s reliability in court, even though the photo of the suspect to whom he was matched was of very poor quality, and the program itself expressed low confidence in the match.
What’s more, Lynch wasn’t the only person the program identified as a possible match. But in what the ACLU calls a clear-cut violation of his constitutional rights, Lynch’s defense team was not allowed access to the other men’s photos.
According to the ACLU, more than 8,000 searches are conducted using that same face recognition algorithm every month in Florida alone.