In the wake of nationwide and global protests over police racism and brutality, several large tech companies have backed off of plans to sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement.
Facial recognition technology has been broadly criticized as a privacy violation, but it also has technical problems that make it less accurate when used on women and minorities. The time for Congress to rein in its use is now.
IBM, Amazon and Microsoft have all recently announced a moratorium on selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement, citing its potential for misuse. The companies plan to discontinue programs already in progress until federal lawmakers have a chance to pass legislation limiting their use.
Amazon had been allowing some police agencies to use its Rekognition software since 2016. Critics have shown that the technology is rife with racial and gender biases. For example, the ACLU used Rekognition on members of Congress, and 28 lawmakers, mostly people of color, were misidentified as people who had been arrested.
According to critical research published over the past two years, Rekognition performs worst on women with darker skin. When Amazon pushed back on the research, nearly 80 additional researchers came forward to defend the findings and call upon Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement.
It is unclear exactly how many law enforcement agencies currently use Rekognition.
Brave stand or public relations stunt?
Some critics of Rekognition have not been impressed by Amazon’s announcement of a one-year moratorium on sales to police, calling the move “too little, too late.”
“Amazon shouldn’t just end this practice for one year or one decade; it should end it forever,” said a spokesperson for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
There is currently no federal law limiting facial recognition technology
Even the companies involved want to avoid a patchwork of state laws on the use of facial recognition technology. But critics urge Congress to pass a comprehensive law on what kinds of surveillance by police should be allowed in our society.
“Their products have the alarming potential to infringe on Americans’ privacy rights in ways that we would have thought unimaginable not long ago,” said Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA).
It’s true. Facial recognition technology could easily lead to constant, detailed surveillance on everyone in the U.S. — something the Founding Fathers tried to prohibit through the Constitution.
We need strong, protective laws now at the federal level before this regime of constant surveillance becomes impossible to rein in.