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EFF to testify in support of California facial recognition technology ban

Laptop with street image and facial recognition in China

Last month, the City of San Francisco banned law enforcement agencies from using facial recognition software in cameras, and now the issue has been escalated to the State Senate.

While this is still only a minor thorn in the side of those who have complete disregard for privacy principles, it has the potential to swell into a major debate. There have been numerous trials around the world in an attempt to introduce the invasive technology, but no-one has actually stopped to have a public debate as to whether the disembowelling of privacy rights should be so easily facilitated.

After the City of San Francisco passed the rules, officials voted 8-1 in support of the ban, the issue was escalated up to State level. SB 1215 is now being considered by State legislators, with the Senate Committee on Public Safety conducting a review of pros and cons.

Numerous organizations have come out to support progress of the bill, and of course the official organizations representing law enforcement agencies at State level are attempting to block it. As part of the review process, EFF Grassroots Advocacy Organizer Nathan Sheard will testify in-front of the California Senate Public Safety Committee later on today [June 11].

The issue which is being debated here is quite simple; should the police be allowed to use such invasive surveillance technologies, potentially violating citizens right to privacy without knowledge or consent. Many laws are being passed to give citizens more control of their personal data in the digital economy, but with such surveillance technologies, said citizens may have no idea their images are being collected, analysed and stored by the State.

What should be viewed as an absolutely incredible instance of negligence and irresponsible behaviour, numerous police forces around the world have moved forward implementing these technologies without in-depth public consultation. Conspiracy theorists will have penned various nefarious outcomes for such data, but underhanded Government and police actions like this do support the first-step of their theories.

The City of San Francisco, the State of California and the EFF, as well as the dozens of other agencies challenging deployment of the technology, are quite right to slow progress. The introduction of facial recognition software should be challenged, debated and scrutinised. Free-reign should not be given to police forces and intelligence agencies; they have already show themselves as untrustworthy. They have lost the right to play around with invasive technologies without public debate.

“This bill declares that facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technology pose unique and significant threats to the civil rights and civil liberties of residents and visitors,” the proposed bill states.

“[the bill] Declares that the use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance is the functional equivalent of requiring every person to show a personal photo identification card at all times in violation of recognized constitutional rights. [the bill] States that this technology also allows people to be tracked without consent and would also generate massive databases about law-abiding Californians and may chill the exercise of free speech in public places.”

Under existing laws, there seems to be little resistance to implementing these technologies, aside from the loose definition of ‘best practice’. This would not be considered a particularly difficult hurdle to overcome, such is the nuanced nature of ‘best practice’. Considering the negative implications of the technology, more red-tape should be introduced, forcing the police and intelligence agencies to provide suitable levels of justification and accountability.

Most importantly, there are no requirements for police forces or intelligence agencies to seek approval from the relevant legislative body to deploy the technology. Permission is needed to acquire cellular communications interception technology, in order to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of residents and visitors. The same rights are being challenged with facial recognition software in cameras, but no permissions are required.

This is of course not the first sign of resistance to facial recognition technologies. In January, 85 pro-privacy organizations, charities and influencers wrote to Amazon, Google and Microsoft requesting the firms pledge not to sell the technology to police forces or intelligence agencies. It does appear the use of the data by enforcement agencies in countries like China has put the fear into these organizations.

The accuracy of the technology has also been called into question. Although the tech giants are claiming AI is improving the accuracy every day, last year the American Civil Liberties Union produced research which suggested a 5% error rate. The research claimed 28 members of Congress had been falsely identified as people who had been arrested.

Interestingly enough, critics also claim the technology violates the Forth Amendment of the US Constitution. It has already been established that police demanding identification without suspicion violates this amendment, while the American Civil Liberties Union argues such technologies are effectively doing the same thing.

What is worth noting is that it is highly unlikely a total ban will be passed. This is not the case in the City of San Francisco, as the city has introduced measures to ensure appropriate justification and also that data is stored properly. The key with the rules in San Francisco is that it is making it as difficult as possible to ensure the technologies are not used haphazardly.

What we are most likely to see is bureaucracy. Red-tape will be scattered all over the technology to ensure it is used in an appropriate and justified manner.

Accessibility is one of the issues which privacy campaigners are facing right now. Companies like New York-based Vuzix and NNTC in the UAE are making products which are not obviously used for surveillance and are becoming increasingly affordable. Software from companies like NEC is also becoming more available, giving the police more options. A landscape with affordable technology and no regulatory resistance paints a gloomy picture.

The introduction of more red-tape might have under-resourced and under-pressure police forces frustrated, but such is the potential invasion of privacy rights and the consequence of abuse, it is absolutely necessary. The quicker this technology is brought into the public domain and understood by the man-on-the-street, the better.


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