According to the ACLU, Amazon has developed facial recognition software called ‘Rekognition’ that has come under severe criticism from privacy advocates because of the possibility that it will create a massive database of ordinary people that will further aid the national security state apparatus to keep track of everyone. Of course Congress, ever compliant to the needs of the national security state, did nothing.
But then the ACLU took photos of members of Congress and used the software to compare with a database of photographs of people who had been arrested for crimes.
[T]he software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime.
The members of Congress who were falsely matched with the mugshot database we used in the test include Republicans and Democrats, men and women, and legislators of all ages, from all across the country
The false matches were disproportionately of people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). These results demonstrate why Congress should join the ACLU in calling for a moratorium on law enforcement use of face surveillance.
Why is this a problem?
If law enforcement is using Amazon Rekognition, it’s not hard to imagine a police officer getting a “match” indicating that a person has a previous concealed-weapon arrest, biasing the officer before an encounter even begins. Or an individual getting a knock on the door from law enforcement, and being questioned or having their home searched, based on a false identification.
An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives. People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that. A recent incident in San Francisco provides a disturbing illustration of that risk. Police stopped a car, handcuffed an elderly Black woman and forced her to kneel at gunpoint — all because an automatic license plate reader improperly identified her car as a stolen vehicle.
Matching people against arrest photos is not a hypothetical exercise. Amazon is aggressively marketing its face surveillance technology to police, boasting that its service can identify up to 100 faces in a single image, track people in real time through surveillance cameras, and scan footage from body cameras. A sheriff’s department in Oregon has already started using Amazon Rekognition to compare people’s faces against a mugshot database, without any public debate.
Suddenly faced with the fact that they themselves could be mistaken for criminals, Congress is now asking questions. This is a familiar pattern. Readers may recall that when Edward Snowden revealed the existence of massive spying and eavesdropping by the US and its allies on all its citizens, there was general outrage but members of Congress, ever subservient to the national security state, tended to downplay the seriousness and rather than praising Snowden for his whistleblowing, instead joined in the establishment criticisms of him.
However, some of the most ardent supporters of NSA spying and strident critics of Snowden, notably Jane Harman, Diane Feinstein, and Pete Hoekstra, suddenly shifted their positions when they discovered that their own phone conversations had been picked up. Pretty much overnight, they became concerned about civil liberties, as Glenn Greenwald reported back in 2015.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the NSA under President Obama targeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top aides for surveillance. In the process, the agency ended up eavesdropping on “the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups” about how to sabotage the Iran Deal. All sorts of people who spent many years cheering for and defending the NSA and its programs of mass surveillance are suddenly indignant now that they know the eavesdropping included them and their American and Israeli friends rather than just ordinary people.
So now, with yesterday’s WSJ report, we witness the tawdry spectacle of large numbers of people who for years were fine with, responsible for, and even giddy about NSA mass surveillance suddenly objecting. Now they’ve learned that they themselves, or the officials of the foreign country they most love, have been caught up in this surveillance dragnet, and they can hardly contain their indignation. Overnight, privacy is of the highest value because now it’s their privacy, rather than just yours, that is invaded.