Facial recognition: Activists call for ban of government use of technology that is 'profound threat to humanity'

Independent tests show systems less effective at identifying people of colour

Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 09 July 2019 18:13
Microsoft president calls for regulation of AI facial recognition technology over discrimination fears

Activists are calling for government departments and law enforcement agencies in the US to be banned from using facial recognition technology they claim is a “profound threat to humanity”.

As several cities pass legislation preventing the technology’s use amid concerns over privacy and racial bias, activists say a nationwide ban is the best way to protect people. They say giants such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon, are being disingenuous by calling for regulation of the technology, and seeking to avoid a debate on whether it is even necessary.

“There is a reason we are calling for a total ban. We believe this is a profound threat to human rights and to human society,” Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, told The Independent. “They should not be there. Any benefit to society is far outweighed by the threats.”

The demand for a ban on its use by police departments and agencies such as the customs and border enforcement (ICE), comes amid growing concern about systems such as Amazon’s Rekognition. Earlier this year, a group of 85 faith and social justice groups wrote to the Google, Amazon and Microsoft urging them to commit to not sell the face surveillance technology to the government.

“Companies can’t continue to pretend that the ‘break then fix’ approach works,” Nicole Ozer, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said at the time. “History has clearly taught us that the government will exploit technologies like face surveillance to target communities of colour, religious minorities, and immigrants.”

This month, the Washington Post revealed agents from the FBI and ICE had mined state driver license databases to obtain millions of Americans’ photographs without their knowledge or consent.

Several cities, including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, have already banned the use of the systems. The Seattle Times said the city councils of Berkeley and Oakland in California, were set to vote on similar legislation later this month.

Much of the concern about the misuse of such technology has come from employees of the companies that produce them. Last summer, more than 100 workers at Microsoft posted a letter to chief executive Satya Nadella following reports the technology was being being used by ICE agents involved in the separation of migrant children from their families.

Police are trailling controversial facial recognition technology in Stratford

“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” said the letter. Microsoft claimed that a blog post by an executive that said the company was “proud” its Azure Government technology was being used by the department of homeland security (DHS), was misleading.

This spring, activist shareholders at Amazon tried and failed to have the company agree not to sell its facial recognition technology to government customers. They also called for an independent review into the civil rights implications of the use of the technology.

This week, members of the House of Representatives committee on homeland security are to debate the use of facial recognition technology. Among the witnesses are senior officials from DHS and the US Secret Service, which last year announced plans to test the technology around the White House, with the goal of identifying “subjects of interest”.

There have also been questions raised abut the effectiveness and fairness of the systems. A study performed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested it was far less effective at identifying people of colour.

The ACLU’s own test of Amazon Rekognition using photographs of members of Congress, found 28 legislators were incorrectly matched, among them 6 members of the congressional black caucus.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft did not immediately respond to enquiries.

Ms Greer said she hoped the campaign, BanFacialRecognition.com, would encourage people to contact their local politicians and demand action.

She said: “These mass surveillance systems are not going to keep us safe - they are likely to make things more dangerous. But they are a serious threat to human rights.”

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