The use of facial recognition technology should be halted, and the US’ federal funds should not be used to purchase such “discriminatory” technologies, over 30 rights organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and S.T.O.P., wrote in a letter to the US Congress last week. “As thousands gather to demonstrate and demand justice for George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people who have been killed by police, it is time Congress responds to these demands and eradicates systemic racism and tools that facilitate discriminatory policing – including face recognition technology,” the letter said.

In particular, the letter demanded: 

  • Congress to pass legislation like the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020, which proposes to halt the use of face recognition and prevent federal funds from being used to purchase such technology,
  • Stop federal funding of invasive and discriminatory technologies by police, including face recognition
  • Ensure that any policing reform bill that funds body or dash cameras prohibits the use of face recognition technology.

‘Face recognition tech gives the govt unprecedented power to track people’

The letter said that facial recognition technology gives the government unprecedented power to track people, is discriminatory towards people of colour, and more importantly, can exacerbate inherent biases already present in the police system.

Unprecedented tracking: Companies marketing this technology to the government boast that it can be used to track people in real-time, reconstruct past movements from video footage, or identify a hundred individuals from a single photo, the letter said. “This capability threatens to create a world where people are watched and identified as they attend a protest, congregate outside a place of worship, visit a medical provider, or simply go about their daily lives,” it added.

Disproportionate: The harms associated with facial recognition technology will likely fall “disproportionately” on communities of colour. Citing a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the letter said that even leading face recognition algorithms are less accurate on certain groups, including women and people with darker colour.

Even if facial recognition technology was accurate, it cannot be dissociated from the racist policies that are embedded in policing, the groups wrote. “Across the U.S., communities of colour face arrest for a variety of crimes at far higher rates than white people, and suffer overwhelming disparities at every single stage of the criminal punishment system,” they added. “Face recognition will not fix these problems; it is likely to make them worse by providing another flawed tool that will be disproportionately targeted at communities of colour,” the letter said.

Face recognition systems are secretive: This technology has been deployed largely in secret, the letter said, “undermining principles of democratic governance”. Even in the absence of a law regulating use of the tech, federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, have continued to expand the use of face recognition without safeguards, it said.

Read: Bill in US Congress proposes to ban federal agencies from using facial recognition tech and any other biometric surveillance system

Indian authorities use facial recognition technology unabated, sans policy

While the debate around the harms of facial recognition technology in the US has at least resulted in companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Amazon to stop or halt the use of the tech, in India, the government has used the technology in the absence of a law regulating its use:

  • The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is in the midst of inviting applicants for the implementation of a centralised Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) that will be a platform of facial images accessible to all police stations of the country.
  • In February 2020, we reported that the Vadodara City Policy is planning to use Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition software in public places to track “property offenders”. This software could also be used in CCTVs installed at “specific locations” in the city.
  • In January 2020, the Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC) piloted a facial recognition app that would be used on a pilot basis at 10 polling stations in the Kompally Municipality in the state’s civic elections.
  • In January 2020, The Indian Railways said that it was in the process of installing Video Surveillance Systems (VSS), equipped with a facial recognition system, in 983 railway stations across the country.
  • In December 2019, the Delhi Police used facial recognition technology at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally to screen crowds, News18 had reported.
  • In November 2019, the Hyderabad Police randomly collected people’s fingerprints and facial data to identify “potential” criminals using the TSCOP app which was launched in January 2018. Syed Rafeeq, Additional DCP, South Zone, Hyderabad, had told MediaNama that the police was approaching people to verify if they were “suspects” mostly based on intuition.