Facial recognition coming to U.S. airports by 2021

A congressional hearing on the dangers of facial recognition technology brought Republicans and Democrats together on Wednesday.
Image: Valentin Wolf/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

The first in a series of congressional hearings on facial recognition technology took place on Wednesday, and it brought about a rare occurrence in Washington: agreement between Democrats and Republicans.

The House Oversight Committee’s hearing was focused on the impact facial recognition has had on civil rights and liberties from its use among law enforcement. A panel of experts, including face recognition researchers, legal professionals, and former law enforcement, spoke of the threat of mass surveillance. The panel was nearly in full agreement that the use of facial recognition technology in the field must be halted immediately.

“At a minimum, Congress should pass a moratorium on the police use of facial recognition as the capacity for abuse, lack of oversight, and technical immaturity poses great risk, especially for marginalized communities,” said Joy Buolamwini, an algorithmic bias researcher at MIT and  founder of the Algorithmic Justice League.


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    “Face recognition gives law enforcement a power that they’ve never had before,” explained Clare Garvie, a senior associate at Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Privacy & Technology. 

    Garvie pointed out to the committee that one of the issues with facial recognition isn’t just the advances in the technology alone. “Garbage data,” as she called it, is often submitted into facial recognition systems by law enforcement because there’s no oversight or regulation on the use of the technology. 

    An outrageously absurd use case was submitted as an example of such garbage data. The NYPD recently used a photo of Woody Harrelson along with facial recognition software to find a lookalike accused of stealing beer.

    Buolamwini, along with the former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Dr. Cedric Alexander, backed how the misuse of the data negates even the most advanced breakthroughs in facial recognition technology.

    Republican Rep. Jim Jordan outright floated the idea of hitting “pause” on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology.

    Amazon was frequently mentioned by the panel during the hearing. The company has its own facial recognition product, called Rekognition, which has been intensely criticized. The Seattle-based ecommerce giant has already sold its facial recognition technology to local law enforcement around the country as well as to the FBI


     

    During the hearing, Neema Singh Guliani of the ACLU specifically brought up the organization’s testing of Amazon Rekognition where it had misidentified 28 Congresspeople, including members of the Oversight Committee.

    Interestingly, a vote was held among Amazon shareholders on the facial recognition technology as the congressional hearing took place. The proposals, which sought to regulate the sale of Rekognition and investigate its use, failed. 

    “That just means that it’s more important that Congress acts,” said Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez in response to the Amazon shareholder vote.

    “Congress must act now to regulate facial recognition technologies because fourth amendment litigation is inadequate to address the rapidly changing world of mass surveillance,” urged Professor Andrew Ferguson of the University of the District of Columbia. “The fourth amendment will not save us.” 

    “I don’t want to see an authoritarian surveillance state whether it’s run by a government or whether it’s run by five corporations,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in reference to Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook.


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    Europe’s GDPR was brought up during the hearing as an example of effective regulation that could be seen in the states. For example, Facebook now makes facial recognition opt-in for users in the EU due to privacy laws.

    Some local politicians are taking facial recognition matters into their own hands. Last week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a citywide ban on governmental use of the technology for surveillance.

    “You’ve hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together,” said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows to those at the hearing. “When you have a diverse group on this committee, as diverse as you might see on the polar ends, I’m here to tell you we’re serious about this, and let’s get together and work on legislation.”

    “The time is now before it gets out of control,” urged Rep. Meadows.

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