Rights Coalition Demands US Retailers Reject Use of Facial Recognition

By Jessica Corbett

On the heels of a congressional hearing that highlighted concerns about facial recognition, more than 35 civil rights groups on Wednesday collectively called for retailers to reject the technology in their stores “to protect the privacy and rights of shoppers and staff.”

The coalition is spearheaded by Fight for the Future, which last month launched the “Ban Facial Recognition in Stores” campaign and released a scorecard detailing which major retailers won’t use facial recognition technology, might use it, or already are using it. Retailers who said they use it include Apple, Ace Hardware, Albertsons, H.E.B. Grocery, Lowe’s, and Macy’s.

“Your face should not be scanned, stored, or sold just because you walk into or work at a store,” the campaign asserts. “Retailers justify using facial recognition to protect and predict their profits, but this technology puts workers in danger, exacerbates bias, and amasses personal data. Retailers across the country that are exploring this invasive technology should know that prioritizing profit over privacy is wrong.”

People who agree with the campaign can sign a petition that urges stores to refuse to use the controversial technology. The petition also urges elected officials to ban corporations “from using retail surveillance data to profile the public” and retailers that are not using facial recognition to promote that position and collaborate with consumers and legislators to end its use.

“Companies say they offer facial recognition in the name of ‘convenience’ and ‘personalization,’ but their real priorities are protecting and predicting their profits, ignoring how they abuse peoples’ rights and put them in danger,” said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future.

“The stores that are using or are considering using facial recognition should pay attention to this call from dozens of leading civil rights and racial justice organizations who represent millions of people,” she added. “Retailers should commit to not using facial recognition in their stores so we can champion their decision, or be prepared for an onslaught of opposition.”

Coalition members on Wednesday emphasized the technology’s flaws, privacy concerns, coordination between law enforcement and corporations, and local efforts to outlaw the technology—which have advanced in communities across the country in the absence of federal restrictions.

“Face surveillance in stores is an assault on our human rights,” said Jennifer Brody, U.S. advocacy manager at Access Now. “Corporations’ attempts to determine what demographic ‘box’ we fit into based on our facial features and expressions is a clear invasion of privacy. These surveillance systems perpetuate systemic discrimination, and must be stopped.”

Various studies have found facial recognition software disproportionately favors middle-aged white men, more frequently misidentifying people of color, transgender and nonbinary individuals, youth, the elderly, and women.

“Detroiters know what it feels like to be watched, to be followed around by surveillance cameras using facial recognition,” noted Tawana Petty, national organizing director at Data for Black Lives.

As Petty explained:

In Detroit, we suffer under Project Green Light, a mass surveillance program that utilizes more than 2000 flashing green surveillance cameras at over 700 businesses, including medical facilities, public housing and eating establishments. These cameras using facial recognition are monitored at real-time crime centers, police precincts, and on officers’ mobile devices 24/7. It’s difficult to explain the psychological toll it takes on a community, knowing that your every move is being monitored by a racially biased algorithm with the power to yank your freedom away from you.

Underscoring the need for comprehensive policies, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), pointed out that “more and more, police use private facial recognition partnerships to avoid surveillance bans.”

“In cities that ban government facial recognition, officers turn to corporate partners to run searches for them,” he said. “When we let stores spy on their customers with facial recognition, it puts BIPOC communities in harm’s way. Every time a biased facial recognition search increases the risk that a customer will be arrested just for ‘shopping while black.’ A trip to the grocery store shouldn’t mean losing your privacy and enduring police profiling.”

The coalition’s call came a day after the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing entitled, “Facial Recognition Technology: Examining Its Use by Law Enforcement.”

Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) signaled he would not favor a full ban, saying that “facial recognition technology can be an important crime fighting tool. But like all such tools, we need to ensure that the adoption of this new technology does not further erode trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and does not compound the unfairness of a criminal justice system that too often disproportionately impacts people of color.”

During the hearing, Robert Williams, a Black man in Michigan who was misidentified by facial recognition software as a shoplifting suspect, recounted his experience being arrested and detained. “I never thought I would be a cautionary tale,” he said (pdf), urging lawmakers to ban law enforcement use of the technology.

Williams specifically endorsed the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, which progressives in both chambers of Congress reintroduced last month. The bill would prohibit use of such technologies by federal entities and condition grant funding on state and local entities, including law enforcement, enacting their own moratoria.

In a statement Tuesday, Fight for the Future director Evan Greer also called on lawmakers to pass that measure, saying: “Facial recognition has already gotten innocent people arrested and jailed. How long before it gets someone killed?”

“We don’t have time to debate about ‘regulatory standards’ that will ultimately fail to reduce the harm of this fundamentally discriminatory technology. Lawmakers need to do their jobs right now,” she said. “You can’t fight racism and authoritarianism with racist and authoritarian surveillance technology. We reiterate our call for an outright ban on both government and private use of facial recognition surveillance.”

Source: Common Dreams

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Image: The Last American Vagabond

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