The Fight Against Facial Recognition Tech

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Facial recognition technology is undeniably a feat of computational engineering. The technology hinges on analyzing unique facial features and matching them to enormous databases of images and videos to discern and identify individuals, even when their faces are partially covered. 

However, the growing use of this technology in general surveillance, often without consent or even knowledge of its implementation, stirs up some rather unsettling facts and feelings. From privacy violations to concerns regarding the watchful eye of tyrannical governments and Big Brother, facial recognition technology may be doing more harm than good. 

First of all, many consider the privacy intrusion led by facial recognition technology a direct infringement upon basic civil rights. The US government, along with many other Western governments, is championing this technology, as it holds security and data collection to a higher value than it does citizens’ civil liberties.

Facial recognition technology can be found at border crossings and airports, in sports stadiums and public schools — even at the mall, where retailers can recognize you as you enter their store, track what you purchase, and forward promotional material directly to your inbox curated specifically to the data and trends that were logged on your last visit.

Microsoft and Amazon suspended their sales of facial recognition technology to police departments in recent weeks amid nationwide protests against police brutality. IBM went even further, ceasing its research on the subject altogether.

It might be clever and intuitive, but facial recognition technology is highly invasive. Little wonder, then, that across the world, people are joining the fight against its implementation.

The Fight Against Facial Recognition Technology

A year ago in San Francisco, the epicenter of the tech world, the city became the first to put a partial ban on facial recognition technology following a push from several activist organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

The ACLU highlighted concerns surrounding facial recognition technology including privacy, of course, but also its alleged discrimination against minority groups and women in particular. Since the San Francisco ban in May 2019, several cities have followed suit, including the Boston suburb, Somerville, and Oakland, California.  

The San Francisco ban forbids municipal agencies and the police from utilizing biometric facial recognition data despite its potential to facilitate certain forensic methods and procedures. This potential has been touted by proponents of the technology, who argue that it offers measurable public safety value.

But to embrace the strides in technology and innovation that come out of places like Silicon Valley before regulations are in place to make sure the tech is implemented safely and equitably would be unwise. It would also align with deceiving narratives about the inevitability of danger alongside technological advancements. It’s not that technology is bad in and of itself; it is that those who produce and sell it must only do so with consent of those their products affect and with reasonable confidence their products will be implemented ethically.  

The latest in the ACLU’s efforts to protest facial recognition technology in the US include a lawsuit filed in March 2020 with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) against the US Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In this litigation, the ACLU and NYCLU are demanding the government entities in question make public their plans to implement this type of surveillance at airports nationwide, and more specifically, their intent to retain the biometric data collected on the millions of travelers passing through our airports every year.

Other protests against facial recognition technology are popping up all over the country, especially at some of the nation’s most renowned colleges and universities, including UCLA and Yale. Tech advocacy group Fight for the Future is leading the fight against facial recognition and spearheading a campaign compelling university administrations to enforce a strict, all-encompassing ban on such surveillance. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, concerns surrounding facial recognition technology are also mounting. Protests in which demonstrators and artists paint their faces in an effort to render themselves unrecognizable by the technology are carried out monthly in the form of silent walks in London. The Dazzle Club is striving to provoke a candid discourse on the dangers and intrusions of facial recognition technology, as the police insist it’s a necessity to keep citizens safe.

Police departments in New York City, Las Vegas, Detroit, Orlando, and other major US cities are already using facial recognition technology and have been for some time now. When considering the innovation’s harmful usage in places like China, where the government relies on it to closely monitor, track, and detain members of minority ethnic groups such as the Muslim Uighur population, it’s glaringly obvious that more stringent regulations must be put in place here in the United States so facial recognition technology and biometric data can be used to our benefit rather than our detriment.

Brad Smith is a technology expert at TurnOnVPN.