A disturbing report from NBC News has revealed that the world’s most cartoonishly shady surveillance vendor, Clearview AI, is pushing state and federal authorities to use facial recognition with existing CCTV camera networks to invasively track people –– allegedly as a way to respond to COVID-19.
Digital rights group Fight for the Future, known for leading the large coalition of groups backing its BanFacialRecognition.com campaign, issued an official statement on the proposal. "Absolutely the fuck not," said Evan Greer (she/her), the groups Deputy Director.
"This is a clear example of an unscrupulous company trying to exploit this public health crisis to sell dangerous, invasive, and ineffective surveillance software," added Sarah Roth-Gaudette (she/her), Fight for the Future’s executive director, "There may be ways that technology can be used to improve traditional forms of contact tracing while protecting people’s basic human rights. This is clearly not one of them. Any local, state, or federal agency that buys into this nonsense is putting the public at risk."
Clearview’s scheme makes … basically no sense. Using facial recognition for contact tracing after someone tests positive for COVID-19 would likely be ineffective, given the software’s propensity for misidentification, especially when analyzing the faces of people of color (who have been among the hardest hit by the virus.) And it would be incredibly invasive. Clearview’s CEO even admits during the NBC interview that "it’s really up to the agencies" that would collect such intimate data how they use it, implying that there would be no safeguards in place to prevent abuse. This would almost certainly mean that law enforcement and other government agencies would have access to both someone’s health information and their real-time location.
Fight for the Future has been leading a national campaign backed by dozens of other grassroots organizations calling for an outright ban on law enforcement and government use of facial recognition. In February, the group expanded its efforts to explicitly call for lawmakers to also ban private individuals, institutions, and corporations from using this technology in public places, for surveillance purposes, or without the subjects’ knowledge and affirmative consent, such as unlocking a phone. Even seemingly innocuous uses of facial recognition, like speeding up lines or using your face as a form of payment, normalize the act of handing over sensitive biometric information and pose a serious threat to security and civil liberties.
Fight for the Future worked with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and other artists to lead a successful campaign to keep facial recognition technology out of US music festivals and live concerts. More than 40 of the worlds’ largest festivals including Coachella, Bonnaroo, and SXSW confirmed they won’t use the tech at their events. The group then worked with Students for a Sensible Drug Policy to get more than 60 prominent colleges and universities to confirm they won’t use facial recognition on campus. 150+ university faculty issued an open letter echoing student demands to ban the use of face surveillance on college campuses. Students across the country held a national day of action in March.
Fight for the Future is continuing to run campaigns in defense of basic human rights and civil liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month the group launched TakeThisSeriously.org, a pledge calling on people to listen to public health officials, practice social distancing, and fight back against attempts by governments and corporations to exploit the crisis by cracking down on human rights.