Civil Rights Group Wants to Ban Feds From Using Facial Recognition

Fight for the Future, one of the main activist groups fighting for net neutrality and against mass surveillance in the past few years, launched a new campaign today, asking for a ban on the use of facial recognition software by the federal government. The group called facial recognition technology “unreliable, biased and a threat to basic rights and safety.”

The FTTF is calling on everyone to contact their Congress representatives to ask for a ban of facial recognition use by the federal government.

It argues that like nuclear or bio-weapons, facial recognition technology poses a threat to human society and basic rights that far outweigh any potential benefits. The group called out Silicon Valley companies that have requested light regulation of the technology in an attempt to avoid the debate about whether or not governments and law enforcement should be allowed to use facial recognition technology (although based in Washington, Microsoft and president Brad Smith has also been quite vocal). 

Previous reports have shown that the facial recognition technologies used by law enforcement have a high real-world failure rate in identifying the right person. This could lead to the harassing, arrest, or even deportation of the wrong people.

The activist group also said that law enforcement officers often look into facial recognition databases without warrants. Law enforcement agencies have also begun to share this facial recognition data with private companies, including airlines.

The FTTF said facial recognition software tends to be inaccurate, especially with people of color, women and children, putting these categories at higher risk of harassment, wrongful arrest, or worse.

Facial recognition technology is unlike other surveillance technologies, the group warned: 

“It enables automated and ubiquitous monitoring of an entire population, and it is nearly impossible to avoid. If we don’t stop it from spreading, it will be used not to keep us safe, but to control and oppress us—just as it is already being used in authoritarian states," the announcement said. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has also supported a ban on the federal use of facial recognition technology since earlier this year. The EFF has made many of the same arguments as the FTTF and also argued that mass deployment of facial recognition by the federal and local governments will deter protests and free speech in general.

Beyond arguments that the technology doesn’t work properly or that the government will inevitably abuse, the civil rights groups have also argued that these facial recognition databases appeal to cybercriminals. The same data could be used for harassment, blackmail, identity fraud and many other nefarious purposes. 

The U.S. federal government doesn’t have the best track record in this regard. In 2015, it suffered the largest data breach in history, which resulted in the leaking of sensitive background checks on millions of federal employees as well as millions of stored fingerprints.