Commentary

Civil rights groups to tech giants: Don’t sell face surveillance to the government

In case you missed it yesterday, the ACLU issued a demand to Microsoft, Amazon and Google yesterday that the companies not sell face surveillance technology to the government.

This is from the release that accompanied the demand:

A coalition of over 85 racial justice, faith, and civil, human, and immigrants’ rights groups today sent letters to Microsoft, Amazon, and Google demanding the companies commit not to sell face surveillance technology to the government.

The coalition makes it clear to each company that a decision to provide face surveillance technology to the government threatens the safety of community members and will also undermine public trust in its business.

“Companies can’t continue to pretend that the ‘break then fix’ approach works,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties director for the ACLU of California. “History has clearly taught us that the government will exploit technologies like face surveillance to target communities of color, religious minorities, and immigrants. We are at a crossroads with face surveillance, and the choices made by these companies now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest, going to their place of worship, or simply living their lives.”

The coalition also notes in its letters that face surveillance “gives the government new power to target and single out immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color in our communities” and that “systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias.” Acknowledging both employee and shareholder calls for corporate change, the coalition reiterates that it is time for these companies to take responsibility for the impact of their technology on the privacy and safety of communities and commit not to sell face surveillance to the government….

The letters come as executives from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all spoken publicly about facial recognition technology, revealing an industry at odds on how to respond to concerns raised about government use of such technology.

Google recently announced that it will not sell a face surveillance product until the technology’s dangers are addressed, with its CEO Sundar Pichai warning the tech industry that with artificial intelligence, you “just can’t build it and then fix it.” The coalition today welcomed Google’s decision, and called on the company to fully commit to not release a facial recognition product that could be used by government.

Microsoft President Brad Smith also recently acknowledged the risks associated with face surveillance and the company’s obligation to act internally to address potential harms. The coalition commended Smith’s acknowledgement of the technology’s harms, but noted that the company’s proposed measures to prevent such harms were “wholly inadequate.” The groups added that Microsoft has a “responsibility to do more than speak about ethical principles; it must also act in accordance with those principles.”

Amazon, meanwhile, has doubled down on efforts to sell facial recognition technology to government, despite continued warnings from consumers, employees, members of Congress, and shareholders. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledged his company’s products might be put to “bad uses,” but said the solution was to wait for society’s eventual “immune response” to take care of the problems. Further, recent reports revealed that the FBI is piloting the use of Rekognition, Amazon’s face surveillance product, and that Amazon recently met with ICE officials about its face surveillance product….

The ACLU revealed last year that Amazon has been actively marketing its face surveillance technology to law enforcement and helping them deploy it. On July 26, 2018, the ACLU also released results of a test showing that Rekognition falsely matched 28 current members of Congress with images in an arrest photo database. Congressional members of color were disproportionately identified incorrectly, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The release of the documents and test results spurred a nationwide movement in protest of government use of face surveillance and resulted in over 150,000 petition signatures, a coalition letter signed by nearly 70 organizations representing communities nationwide, and a letter from Amazon’s shareholders and employees demanding the company stop providing face surveillance technology to governments. Members of Congress also wrote to Amazon with civil rights concerns and questions about the sale of Rekognition to law enforcement, and requested information from federal agencies about the use of this technology.

Click here to see the full list of signatories.

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