On Monday, forty organizations signed a letter calling on an independent government watchdog to recommend a ban on U.S. government use of facial recognition technology.
The letter was drafted by the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and signed by organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Color of Change, Fight for the Future, Popular Resistance, and the Consumer Federation of America. The letter calls on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) to “recommend to the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security the suspension of facial recognition systems, pending further review.”
The PCLOB was originally created in 2004, as an independent agency that advises the administration on privacy issues. “The Congress specifically found that new surveillance powers ‘calls for an enhanced system of checks and balances to protect the precious liberties that are vital to our way of life and to ensure that the Government uses its powers for the purposes for which the powers were given’,” the letter states.
The organizations challenge the PCLOB to “examine the more significant public concerns about the use of facial recognition in public spaces.” They also call on the board to address concerns that facial recognition software can be used by “authoritarian governments to control minority populations and limit dissent could spread quickly to democratic societies.”
The letter from EPIC mentions a recent New York Times investigation of a facial recognition service used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies across the country. As the Mind Unleashed recently reported, Manhattan-based Clearview AI is collecting data from unsuspecting social media users and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is using the controversial facial recognition tool to pinpoint the identity of unknown suspects. The Times investigation shows that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are also using the controversial tool.
MIT Technology Review believes EPIC’s letter is “one of the biggest efforts so far in the fight to stem the use of facial recognition technologies.”
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And while these 40 organizations call on the PCLOB to make an official recommendation, there are already examples of pushback against facial recognition. San Francisco, CA and Somerville, Massachusetts recently became the first local governments to ban the use of facial recognition tools. The European Commission is also considering a ban on facial recognition in public for five years. In June 2019, the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology released a report titled “America Under Watch: Face Surveillance in the United States” which calls for a moratorium on facial recognition technology.
In June 2019, I also noted that “the editorial board of the Guardian also recently spoke out about the privacy threats, calling the technology ‘especially inaccurate and prone to bias.’ The editorial board also noted that a recent test of Amazon’s facial recognition software by the American Civil Liberties Union found that it falsely identified 28 members of Congress as known criminal.”
Whether or not the PCLOB or some other government agency chooses to take action on a moratorium on facial recognition, it is imperative that consumers begin educating themselves about the technology and take steps to protect their privacy. While we are limited in how often our faces are scanned in public, we can voluntarily opt-out of facial scanning at airports, grocery stores, and other locations.
We cannot depend on the government to protect our privacy and liberty. We must take action and guard what little privacy remains before it’s too late.
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