As pressure mounts to stop the alleged rise of “domestic terror” the U.S. government and law enforcement are increasing their use of facial recognition technology.
As TLAV previously reported, facial recognition is quickly becoming the most pressing threat to privacy, and the Trump administration is setting the stage for a Biden Surveillance State. I noted that in November, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) proposed a new rule that would exponentially expand the use of facial recognition surveillance at the border. The rule is now being opposed by several branches of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, and other rights organizations. The ACLU says the rule change would threaten the right to privacy and anonymity, as well as disproportionately affect people of color and immigrants.
Over four years, Donald Trump and his administration have expanded the surveillance state across the United States and along the border. The Trump admin inherited the surveillance and police state from the Obama administration in the same way Obama inherited the situation from George W. Bush. Now, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, the ordained President-elect is poised to continue the police state-surveillance state agenda.
However, rather than facial recognition surveillance being the extension of the ongoing destruction of civil liberties and privacy protections, facial recognition surveillance represents an escalation of the privacy threats faced by the American public. Facial recognition is a unique threat because a person’s faceprint is hard to alter. Your ears, nose, eyes, cheekbones, and other facial features make it easy to differentiate one person from another. The companies and government agencies employing facial recognition already have the capability to monitor you from your front door all the way to your office, church, or lover’s home.
A Clear View of The Surveillance State
One of these companies is Clearview AI. In 2020, the NY Times wrote about Clearview’s efforts to gather, store, and sell faceprint data as “the end of privacy as we know it” and they are not wrong. This company has been capturing billions of faceprints from online photos and now claims to have the world’s largest facial recognition database. This gives Clearview the opportunity to sell customers access to all our faces to secretly target, identify, and track any of us. This could be for marketing and advertising purposes, but it could be for government and law enforcement surveillance of activists, journalists and organizers who are performing constitutionally protected activity. As the Mind Unleashed reported, Clearview is collecting data from unsuspecting social media users and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is using the controversial facial recognition tool to pinpoint the identity of unknown suspects.
In the days after the protest at the US Capitol, Clearview’s CEO stated that the company saw a 26 percent increase in law enforcement use of their face recognition technology. The NY Times reported that the Miami Police Department used Clearview to identify some of the rioters and sent potential matches to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. The Wall Street Journal reported that an Alabama police department was also using Clearview to identify faces in images from the riot and sending information to the FBI.
Clearview said in May it would stop selling its technology to private companies and instead provide it for use by law enforcement only – they have thus far made their technology available to some 2,400 law enforcement agencies across the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Clearview, alleging that the company violated Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), a state law that prohibits capturing individuals’ biometric identifiers without notice and consent.
“We represent a group of organizations whose members and service recipients stand to suffer particularly acute harms from nonconsensual faceprinting and surveillance: survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, undocumented immigrants, current and former sex workers, and individuals who regularly exercise their constitutional rights to protest and access reproductive health care services,” the ACLU states.
Clearview has argued that they have a First Amendment right to capture the public’s faceprints without consent. Clearview claims because they gather the faceprints from publicly-available photos on the internet they have a right to disseminate that information is already available. The ACLU has stated that Clearview’s view is dangerous and could be the end of privacy and information laws if the courts do not intervene. The ACLU says that Clearview can gather and republish photos from the internet, but it cannot do so without notice and consent.
The ACLU notes:
“In recent months, government actors have relied on faceprint technology to identify and track protesters in cities and on college campuses, and such technology has resulted in at least two false arrests in Michigan and at least one in New Jersey. Clearview AI has contemplated providing its technology to a “pro-white” Republican candidate to conduct “extreme opposition research,” and it has given access to more than 200 companies, as well as celebrities and wealthy businesspeople, to use as they would like, including to identify who their children are dating. Recently, it entered into a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And, in the last year, it suffered a data breach (though thankfully not of its faceprint database).”
Facial Recognition is a Unique and Impending Threat
One year ago, forty organizations signed a letter calling on an independent government watchdog to recommend a ban on U.S. government use of facial recognition technology. The letter was drafted by the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and signed by organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Color of Change, Fight for the Future, Popular Resistance, and the Consumer Federation of America. The letter calls on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) to “recommend to the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security the suspension of facial recognition systems, pending further review.“ The letter from EPIC also mentions the NY Times investigation into Clearview.
The organizations challenge the PCLOB to “examine the more significant public concerns about the use of facial recognition in public spaces.” They also call on the board to address growing concerns that “facial recognition techniques used by authoritarian governments to control minority populations and limit dissent could spread quickly to democratic societies.”
As far back as June 2019, the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology released a report entitled “America Under Watch: Face Surveillance in the United States,” which called for a moratorium on facial recognition technology. As I warned in July 2019, the rise of facial recognition should scare all Americans who value privacy and liberty. In the age of COVID1984 and the renewed focus on Domestic Extremism, the implications of a nation under total facial recognition surveillance is disturbing. We only need look toward China to see how this system could spell the end of American liberties.