Activism is working. Both on the streets as people protest to end racist and violent policing, and among civil liberties organizations who have been fighting the government’s use of harmful face surveillance technology. This week two major vendors of face surveillance technology announced that in light of recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice, they would be phasing out or pausing their sale of this technology to police.
The fact that these two companies, IBM and Amazon, have admitted the harm that this technology causes should be a red flag to lawmakers. The belief that police and other government use of this technology can be responsibly regulated is wrong. Congress, states, and cities should take this momentary reprieve, during which police will not be able to acquire face surveillance technology from two major companies, as an opportunity to ban government use of the technology once and for all.
In a letter from Arvind Krishna to Congress, the IBM CEO announced that in the name of racial justice the company would end research, development, and sale of any face recognition technology:
IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.
This is a big pivot. In March 2019, IBM was criticized by photographers after it released a new dataset of diverse images, scraped from social media platform Flickr, in hopes of training face recognition programs to be less flawed when recognizing people of color. Now the company recognizes that better training data is not an effective solution to the many problems of this menacing technology.
Amazon in turn announced a 1-year moratorium on police use of its face surveillance technology, Rekognition. This company also cited recent protests as the impetus of re-examining the harm this technology can do to already over-policed communities. Unfortunately, Amazon still clings to the discredited notion that police can safely deploy face surveillance technology if only there are enough rules. “We’ve advocated,” the company posted, “that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
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Amazon’s Rekognition program has been particularly flawed and harmful. In 2018, the ACLU ran faces of sitting U.S. congress members through the program. Twenty-eight members of congress were incorrectly identified as people who had been arrested for committing crimes. That same year EFF joined with ACLU and a coalition of civil liberties organizations to demand that Amazon stop powering government surveillance infrastructure with its flawed and invasive Rekognition program.
While we welcome Amazon’s half-step, we urge the company to finish the job. Like IBM, Amazon must permanently end its sale of this dangerous technology to police departments.
Microsoft is another one of the largest vendors of police-used face surveillance. It must now follow suit and end government use of its facial recognition program. Microsoft has expressed concerns over harms police use of face recognition can cause. In 2019, Microsoft stated that it had denied one California law enforcement agency use of its face recognition technology on body-worn cameras and car cameras, due to human rights concerns. The logical next step is clear: Microsoft should end the program once and for all.
There should be a nation-wide ban on government use of face surveillance. Even if the technology were highly regulated, its use by the government would continue to exacerbate a policing crisis in this nation that disproportionately harms Black Americans, immigrants, the unhoused, and other vulnerable populations. We agree that the government should act, and are glad that Amazon is giving them a year to do so, but the outcome must be an end to government use of this technology.
The movement to ban face recognition is gaining momentum. The historic demonstrations of the past two weeks show that the public will not sit idly by while tech companies enable and profit off of a system of surveillance and policing that hurts so many.
Face recognition isn’t the only problematic tool tech companies offer to police. Though Amazon has pressed pause on offering Rekognition to police, Amazon-owned Ring, the “smart doorbell” and camera company, still partners with over 1300 police departments. These partnerships allow police to make batch-requests for footage via email to every resident with a camera within an area of interest to police—potentially giving police a one-step process for requesting footage of protests to identify protestors. These partnerships intensify suspicion, help police racially profile people, and enable and perpetuate police harassment of Black Americans.
Join us in calling on Amazon to continue its thoughtful action in light of nationwide activism, admit the dangers of Ring-police partnerships, and immediately halt them
Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and privacy at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock and his bylines have also appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, and Motherboard. Matthew is a visiting scholar in the department of history at UC-Berkeley and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole. (Photo by Zack Garlitos)
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