ACLU to Congress: It’s time to hit the pause button on face recognition tech

State of the Nation

Source: Fast Company

In a Wednesday hearing on face recognition technology, experts and members of the House Oversight Committee expressed concern about errors and bias linked to the technology and its impact on civil liberties.

“More than half of American adults are part of facial recognition databases, and they may not even know it,” said Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat and the committee’s chairman, who later suggested that the technology is a “defective system.”

Experts testifying pointed to evidence that facial recognition software often has lower accuracy rates with people other than white men and the lack of oversight over how police agencies deploy the technology.

“Federal, state, and local police continue to expand the use of this controversial technology–even amid ample evidence that it is not being used consistent with our core constitutional values,” said American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani in a written statement. “Congress should press federal agencies to hit the pause button and stop using this technology until rights can be safeguarded and there is a democratic process dictating what, if any, uses are appropriate.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Joy Buolamwini, who has studied racial and gender bias in face recognition, also called for a halt to police use of the technology, which she says poses “too great a risk” to the public.

“Congress should pass a moratorium on the police use of facial recognition,” she told the committee.

A recent report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology found police departments used the technology to search databases in ways the underlying science doesn’t support, including searches based on celebrities suspects were said to resemble, based on sketches drawn from witness reports and based on altered photographs.

“Defendants are left in the dark about all of this, often never told that face recognition was used to identify them,” said Clare Garvie, the paper’s author and a senior associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology, to the committee.

Witnesses also expressed concern about the civil liberties ramifications of police using cameras to automatically scan the faces of wide swaths of the population, with University of the District of Columbia law professor Andrew Ferguson calling for a ban to such practices.

“Congress must act now to regulate facial recognition technologies,” he said. “I think we should ban face surveillance, which is the use of these technologies without any kind of individualized suspicion.”

Committee members from both sides of the political aisle also aired their own concerns about the technology, expressing hope for bipartisan legislation to regulate police face recognition.

“Let’s get together and work on legislation,” said North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows. “The time is now, before it gets out of control.”

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