Dems Call For Moratorium On Federal Agencies Spying On Your Face
1984 movie screenshot

Facial recognition technology is starting to become a part of our daily lives. Many of us even use it to unlock our phones without thinking twice about it. It's certainly more convenient than constantly having to enter a PIN. But it's also something that governments around the world are now using to spy on citizens, "identify" criminal suspects, track people who participate in protests, and do a lot of other things that many of us would not be entirely comfortable with. In China, facial recognition and biometric technology are used as part of the nation's developing public and private "social credit" systems that rank citizens and punish or reward them based on whether or not the government (or businesses) approve of their activities, purchasing habits, and speech.

We're certainly not there yet, but our government and law enforcement agencies (and businesses) have been using these technologies and other AI- and algorithm-based technologies in ways we don't know about and would not be comfortable with if we did. Not to be all "the food was bad and in such small portions" about things, but on top of being an incredible invasion of our privacy, these technologies are also highly inaccurate.

This week, a group of Democrats in the House and Senate announced the reintroduction of the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act,which would restrict government and law enforcement use of technology we know to be racist, inaccurate, and creepy as hell.

This bill was introduced in the Senate by Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and in the house by Representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Rashida Tlaib (MI-12), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Cori Bush (MO-01), Greg Casar (TX-35), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Barbara Lee (CA-12), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), and Jan Schakowsky (IL-09).

Government use of facial recognition and biometric technology has exploded over the past few years. It's been used by police to identify criminal suspects, which is not great given that these programs are still not very good at differentiating Black and Asian people from one another. It has led to false identification and people being accused of crimes they did not commit, and so far there is almost no regulation of the technology, no rules about when it can be used, how it can be used, how well it has to work in order to be used, or anything else.

The sponsors of the bill are asking that a moratorium be put on the use of this technology by federal entities like the FBI and the DOJ so that we don't all have to live in the terrifying surveillance state authors of dystopian fiction have warned about for over a century.

“The year is 2023, but we are living through 1984. The continued proliferation of surveillance tools like facial recognition technologies in our society is deeply disturbing,” said Senator Markey in a press release.“Biometric data collection poses serious risks of privacy invasion and discrimination, and Americans know they should not have to forgo personal privacy for safety. As we work to make our country more equitable, we cannot ignore the technologies that stand in the way of progress and perpetuate injustice.”

If there is one overused (and often incorrectly used) literary analogy, it is "This is just like 1984." But in this case, yes. This is just like 1984. This isn't "Oh no, people are judging me for the terrible things I say, guess I'm guilty of wrongthink!" — it is actually "Big Brother is watching."

“Facial recognition technology is not only invasive, inaccurate, and unregulated but it has also been weaponized by law enforcement against Black and Brown people across this country. That’s why I have long called on government to halt the deployment of facial recognition technology, and it’s why we need to immediately take additional steps to evaluate its effectiveness,” said Representative Jayapal. “This legislation will not only preserve civil liberties but aggressively fight back against injustice by stopping federal entities from irresponsibly using facial recognition and biometric surveillance tools.”

It's also necessary to point out that anti-abortion states are currently using technology, including data from Facebook and Google, to track down and prosecute those who have abortions. Imagine what they could do with this kind of technology.

According to Senator Ed Markey's office, the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act would:

  1. Place a prohibition on the use of facial recognition technology by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress;
  2. Place a prohibition on the use of other biometric technologies, including voice recognition, gate recognition, and recognition of other immutable physical characteristics, by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress;
  3. Condition federal grant funding to state and local entities, including law enforcement, on those entities enacting their own moratoria on the use of facial recognition and biometric technology;
  4. Prohibit the use of federal dollars for biometric surveillance systems;
  5. Prohibit the use of information collected via biometric technology in violation of the Act in any judicial proceedings;
  6. Provide a private right of action for individuals whose biometric data is used in violation of the Act and allow for enforcement by state Attorneys General; and
  7. Allow states and localities to enact their own laws regarding the use of facial recognition and biometric technologies.

“These technologies have the potential to enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale,” ACLU attorneys wrote in a 2019 lawsuit against the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. “Such surveillance would permit the government to pervasively track people’s movements and associations in ways that threaten core constitutional values."

While those introducing this legislation are certainly on the progressive side of the Democratic Party (which may get some people's hackles up), regulation and oversight of this technology actually has pretty widespread and bipartisan support throughout Congress. That's not too surprising, as people generally don't want to live like this, regardless of their political orientation.

For further information on this technology. its pitfalls and its tendency towards racism, check out the Netflix documentary Coded Bias.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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