If you’re riding the Washington DC Metro today and a person in a white jumpsuit scans your face with a cell phone strapped to their head—you should probably be alarmed.
Digital rights activists are using Amazon’s commercially available facial scanning technology, Rekognition, to scan the faces of thousands of DC residents outside the halls of Congress and inside the city’s busiest metro stations to showcase the harmful consequences of facial recognition surveillance. Throughout the day, the digital rights group, Fight for the Future, will cross-check scanned faces with a database of journalists, lobbyists, and members of congress.
“We’ll see after the fact how accurate it is,” Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, told Motherboard. “The point we’re trying to make is that facial recognition tech is dangerous either way. It’s dangerous when we’re misidentifying people for law enforcement purposes, and it’s dangerous when it works. It means anyone, whether that’s the government or a private company or a creepy ex, can use it to identify someone.”
After a few hours standing outside the Rayburn congressional office building in Capitol Hill today, scanners had already processed nearly 14,000 faces, identifying one congressperson, seven reporters, and 25 lobbyists. (The entire day is being live streamed at Scancongress.com.)
While admitting that the action today in DC is well-intentioned, some digital rights activists have critiqued and questioned the broader implications of this form of protest, and whether it could do more damage than good to communities already targeted by surveillance and bystanders who are unaware of what’s going on. Chris Gilliard, a digital redlining and policy expert at Maccomb Community College, tweeted: “So y’all running face surveillance on thousands of non-consenting folks, many of them Black, brown, perhaps undocumented, to prove a point? No. Don’t do this.”
“This is an action that tries to do good by highlighting a point, but it does exactly the same thing it’s critiquing,” Natalie Kane, curator of digital design at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told Motherboard. “It’s not really enabling literacy. You’ll have people worrying about this problem and not knowing what to do.”
Fight for Future’s Greer said making people concerned is exactly their point—and leading up to the action they had considered how it could be received in the communities most vulnerable to surveillance. “We also chose our locations carefully to be in places where people are already under surveillance, not in residential neighborhoods,” she said. “Our team also has personal experience being on the receiving end of surveillance and feels it’s urgent and important to fight back.”
In particular, they hope to demonstrate to politicians, journalists, and lobbyists how this technology could impact them directly, rather than in the abstract way the technology is usually spoken about among professionals working in politics. “It’s about showing the danger and calling on lawmakers to ban this technology,” said Greer.
The action arrives during a period of heightened concern about the ethics of facial recognition technology, which has already been used to police and surveil communities of color, undocumented immigrants, and other vulnerable populations. The ACLU has said Amazon’s facial recognition software poses a "grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants." It’s own test of Amazon’s software misidentified 26 California lawmakers.
So far, Amazon’s Rekognition has been deployed by the Orlando police department, as well as a sheriff’s department in Oregon. In 2018, Amazon met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to pitch its Rekognition system, provoking backlash from its own engineers.
Meanwhile, senators Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation today that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant in order to conduct public surveillance using facial recognition technology. “Facial recognition technology can be a powerful tool for law enforcement officials,” said Senator Lee in a press statement. “But it’s very power also makes it ripe for abuse. That is why American citizens deserve protection from facial recognition abuse.”
Fight for the Future, the organization leading today’s action, opposes the new legislation, arguing that anything less than an outright ban on use by law enforcement does not go far enough. “It has gaping loopholes that authorize the use of facial recognition for all kinds of abusive purposes without proper judicial oversight,” the group said. “It's good to see that Congress wants to address this issue, but this bill falls utterly short.”
Lawmakers have already banned the technology outright in several cities, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and Sommerville, Massachusetts.
Following the action, Fight for the Future will release a tool that will allow people who were in DC on Thursday to check to see whether their face was scanned by uploading a photo of themselves. The photos and data, Greer says, will be destroyed after two weeks.