Does Facial Recognition Mean the End of Anonymous Protest?

June 15, 2020 - 8 minutes read

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Ever since the Minneapolis protests began a few weeks ago, the rest of the country and the entire world have joined in to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement and protest the police brutality against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other victims of color.

But as we know with the Hong Kong protests, police can become impatient very quickly, especially when it comes to regaining control of their territory. Many protestors had already donned masks to protect themselves against the COVID-19 pandemic. But when officers threatened to start using facial recognition, a controversial artificial intelligence (AI) application, many more people started to wear full-face coverings.

The Controversy Surrounding Facial Recognition

Protests are a natural part of a democracy, and they’re always centered on bringing about change. For US citizens, protests are a constitutional right. But when officials request protest footage and images with the intent to arrest and charge protesters with crimes, it’s easy to see how facial recognition technology becomes incredibly controversial.

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Anonymity in protesting is completely gone: everyone is recording everything these days, and if we add in facial recognition technology, it’s easy to see how having your face identified by AI could lead to some undesirable consequences.

In facial recognition, the algorithm distinguishes people by searching for a match with their image in an enormous database of labeled photos. One important contentious point about these databases is that they could contain public domain mugshots only or they could contain billions of images scraped from all over the Internet. Sometimes they even include driver license photos.

Cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Somerville and Brookline in Massachusetts have banned facial recognition. Perhaps those cities were thinking ahead to the worst-case scenario of people in power using the technology for a hidden or unlawful agenda. Other cities and towns across the US still allow facial recognition, and many police departments have already started using the technology in law enforcement.

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Clearview AI is a startup that sold a database of billions of images from thousands of sites online. Think you might not be in there? Think again — the company used images from Facebook and YouTube, among many others. The huge database was sold with facial recognition software to hundreds of police departments across the country.

Implementation Without Notice

As recently as February, law enforcement in and around Minneapolis have used Clearview’s database. The FBI recently asked the public to send in photos and videos of rioters and people destroying property. The public proceeded to send in thousands of images and videos of police brutality against peaceful protesters.

It’s not exactly clear how the police and FBI are using their facial recognition software day-to-day, during the protests, or after everything dies down. Those in favor of facial recognition argue that the AI technology can be valuable, if used responsibly, for finding people who’ve committed a crime.

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However, tech-minded folks know that facial recognition is notoriously inaccurate and biased, especially against people of color and women. Without regulation and clear laws, there’s immense potential for abuse, misuse, and illegal activity.

As a result, many experts posit that facial recognition can actually restrict rights and freedoms, eventually leading to a decrease in free expression. After all, who wants to live in a world where they’re scared all the time?

Infringement on Rights

Neema Singh Guliani is a senior legislative counsel for New York City-headquartered civil rights organization ACLU. She says that facial recognition should not be used on protestors.

Simply put, she says, “The idea that you have groups of people that are raising legitimate concerns and now that could be subject to face recognition or surveillance, simply because they choose to protest, amplifies the overall concerns with law enforcement having this technology, to begin with.”

In the US itself, there are no federal rules or guidelines on facial recognition technology. This essentially means that police use the laws set by their state and city (if any).

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For some experts, it’s beneficial that the local and state governments regulate facial recognition technology and its use. The federal government is slow to make new laws, and the world is in a period of strife right now, further delaying any clear regulatory initiatives. At the very least, the local and state laws can help inform and sway federal regulation, when it does come.

Other experts argue that facial recognition regulation is not the end-all-be-all: It’s part of a greater effort to surveil and identify people using a variety of methods, from intercepting smartphones to identifying people by their gait or heartbeat.

For the Greater Good?

We don’t know how, when, and where police are using AI and machine learning, who can get their hands on the police’s software, or if we have any constitutional rights against it. All of these question pose tremendous problems that will inevitably need to be dealt with.

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If we can limit and regulate the why, how, where, when, and who, we can better protect our freedoms. How can we use the technology for good, instead of for revenge or evil? Experts have thrown out a variety of ideas for solutions, such as warrants, limiting use of the technology, extensive audit logging, public reporting, abuse and misuse punishment, and more.

Another idea is to mandate that police wear body cams whenever they are on duty. After all, if citizens must contend with being monitored by technology, why shouldn’t law enforcement? But it’s up to the governments, local, state, and federal, to take into account the peoples’ rights when writing new laws. One thing’s clear: The regulations shouldn’t only serve to protect those in power.

As US citizens, it’s our responsibility to vote for those whose views align closely with ours, keep an eye on new laws being passed, speak up when our rights are being infringed upon, and watch how our government handles facial recognition technology.

The controversy surrounding facial recognition seems to have no end; it will surely be a debate that rages on for years. What do you think about this AI-powered technology? How could we regulate facial recognition to ensure that it’s only used for good? As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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