Home General News News A year later, tech companies’ calls to regulate facial recognition met with little progress

A year later, tech companies’ calls to regulate facial recognition met with little progress

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A year later, tech companies’ calls to regulate facial recognition met with little progress


In June of last year, following pressure from civil rights advocates and national protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, three of the biggest names in facial recognition technology self-imposed restrictions on their sale to police.

But after a year of public discussions over the state of policing in America, the use of facial recognition technology to surveil the public, like many other policing practices, have mostly yet to be reined in.

That’s left companies like Amazon and Microsoft, who enacted moratoriums to give Congress time to come up with fair rules of the road, in limbo. IBM, by contrast, said it would exit the business entirely.

In the year since these tech companies pressed pause on facial recognition, lawmakers are still grappling with how to properly regulate the technology at the state and federal level. A coalition of Democrats have pressed for a pause on the government’s use of the technology entirely until they can come up with better rules. So far, most of the action has taken place in a handful of states.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates say they view the moratoria by companies as a promising first step, but they also remain wary about other, worrisome forms of surveillance that technology companies continue to profit from.

And while Amazon and others restricted the sale of their facial recognition technology, police still seem to have used similar tools during the widespread protests around police brutality last summer, though law enforcement has not been forthcoming about its use.

The unique challenge of facial recognition
Facial recognition poses unique risks to citizens, privacy advocates say, even when compared with on-the-ground police surveillance.

“With most of the digital surveillance, the difference isn’t that there’s more of a court oversight for that sort of activity in the analogue space, the difference is the cost,” said Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). While trailing someone undercover requires a huge investment of time and money, creating fake social media pages to keep tabs on people is cheap and quick, Cahn said.

Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher and advisor on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty International, said another issue lies in the way facial recognition can be used without the subject’s knowledge.

“In a standard police lineup you’re well aware that you’re being lined up,” Mahmoudi said. “In the case of facial recognition, you have no idea that you’re in a virtual line up. You might at any moment be in a virtual lineup.”

The sense that facial recognition could be deployed at any time — and the lack of transparency around how law enforcement uses the technology — could chill speech and free expression, activists fear.


The potential threat of such tools is especially salient for Black and Brown people, on whom facial recognition tools have been proven to be less accurate in identifying, due in part to the fact that the algorithms tend to be trained with datasets that skew white and male.

Research has indicated that facial recognition software may contain racial and gender bias. In 2018, MIT computer scientist Joy Buolamwini and renowned AI researcher Timnit Gebru co-authored a landmark paper showing IBM and Microsoft’s facial recognition systems were significantly worse when it came to identifying darker-skinned individuals.

Additionally, studies by the American Civil Liberties Union and M.I.T. found that Amazon’s Rekognition technology misidentifies women and people of color more frequently than it does white men.

Proponents of facial recognition technology, including Amazon, have argued that it can help law enforcement track down suspected criminals and reunite missing children with families. Amazon also disputed the ACLU and M.I.T. studies, arguing that researchers used Rekognition differently than how it recommends law enforcement agencies use the software.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., himself an activist who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, raised concerns about the technology’s biases and supported a federal moratorium on its use.

“There’s been a generations-long, I guess you would call it, trope in the Black community that all Black people look alike,” Rush said in an interview with CNBC. “Technically, with the advent of this facial recognition technology, that trope has become a truth.”

Tech companies are still ‘monetizing surveillance’
Amazon, Microsoft and IBM have placed sweeping restrictions on their sale of facial recognition tools to police, but law enforcement agencies still have a wealth of surveillance tools at their disposal.

Microsoft has played a large role in aiding police surveillance outside of facial recognition. The company developed the Domain Awareness System in partnership with the New York Police Department, according to the department’s site. The system is billed as a “crime-fighting and counterterrorism tool” that uses “the largest networks of cameras, license plate readers and radiological sensors in the world.” Microsoft did not comment or provide further information on the DAS.

Amazon’s smart home security subsidiary, Ring, has also faced intense scrutiny from privacy advocates over its rapidly expanding work with police. Since 2018, Ring has formed more than 2,100 partnerships with police and fire departments that offer them access to video footage recorded by its users’ internet connected cameras. Video clips are requested through Ring’s social-media-esque community safety app, called Neighbors, where users can upload and comment on recorded footage and discuss goings on in their area.


Ring doesn’t disclose sales of its products, but in a letter to lawmakers last January, it said “there are millions of customers who have purchased a Ring device.”

As Ring’s police partnerships have grown, privacy advocates have expressed concern that the program, and Ring’s accompanying Neighbors app, have turned residents into informants, while giving police access to footage without a warrant and with few guardrails around how they can use the material.

Ring has argued it creates “safer, more connected communities.” Amazon in 2018 claimed that Ring’s video doorbell product reduces neighborhood burglaries by as much as 55%, though recent investigations by NBC News and CNET found there’s little evidence to support that claim.

Ring’s partnerships with public safety agencies have only grown in the year since Amazon put a pause on selling Rekognition to police. The company has announced 468 new partnerships with police departments since June 10, 2020, public records published by Ring show.

In the latest sign of how much the program has expanded, all 50 U.S. states now have police or fire departments participating in Amazon’s Ring network, according to data from the company’s active agency map.

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