A digital rights group with roots in Massachusetts has launched the first major national campaign calling for a complete ban on government use of facial-recognition surveillance.
“Imagine if we could go back in time and prevent governments around the world from ever building nuclear or biological weapons. That’s the moment in history we’re in right now with facial recognition,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future. “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. We don’t need to regulate it; we need to ban it entirely.”
While many have called for additional oversight or a moratorium on facial recognition, Fight for the Future says the technology is too dangerous to be used for government surveillance at all.
The launch came just days after a bombshell report that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other government agencies have been conducting warrantless facial-recognition searches of driver’s license databases. The House Committee on Homeland Security is holding on the subject Wednesday.
State police spokesman David Procopio said the technology is an important tool for law enforcement.
“Facial-recognition technology helps us, in concert with other investigative tactics, to identify unknown suspects in specific crimes, arrest them and seek justice for their victims. It is a valuable tool that, by helping identify someone who has committed a crime, helps us protect our communities and citizens,” Procopio said.
To date, two cities — San Francisco and Somerville — already have banned government use of facial-recognition technology, noting that a growing body of research is finding flaws in the technology, including difficulty accurately reading women’s and darker-complected faces. It’s also unclear exactly how many departments, agencies and corporations are using the technology.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that documents obtained through public records requests by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology show that the FBI and ICE have turned state driver’s license databases into a “facial-recognition gold mine,” scanning millions of Americans’ photos without their knowledge or consent.
“What have we found?” said Alvaro Bedoya, the center’s founding director. “That these systems include more than half of all Americans. That the vast majority of people have no idea that they are in a police face-recognition database. That no rules apply to the vast majority of these systems. That these systems tend to be biased in ways that disproportionately hurt women, young people and black people.”
Massachusetts lawmakers are concerned enough that they have called for a moratorium on the state’s use of the technology.
“People are applying for licenses without any inkling of how their photos will be used,” said Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Newton), one of the moratorium’s sponsors. “There’s no due process. … Pressing pause at the state level doesn’t foreclose a federal ban.”