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Government Surveillance, Privacy & Data

CDT Joins OTI, Upturn, and the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights in Call for Moratorium on Law Enforcement Use of Facial Recognition

Today, we are joining OTI, Upturn, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, and dozens of leading technology policy & civil rights organizations in calling for a moratorium on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology.

Facial recognition systems have repeatedly been shown to be prone to mis-identifying Black and Brown people, and women, which can result in errant and biased arrests and prosecutions.

Law enforcement use of mugshot databases for facial recognition searches virtually guarantees that Black and Brown people will be disproportionately more likely to show up in search results because they are disproportionately represented in those databases as a result of over-policing. Facial recognition, used with persistent camera surveillance networks, erodes anonymity in public spaces that is essential to personal privacy, dignity, and the First Amendment rights of protesters.

In addition, police (and juries) may put too much stock in the reliability of face matches using facial recognition. And too often, defendants’ right to challenge the use of facial recognition technology is rebuffed by claims that the algorithms used are “trade secrets” that can’t be disclosed — even to a person whose liberty is jeopardy.

We’ve pasted a portion of the open letter below, and you can read the full letter – including the full list of signatories – here.

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Civil Rights Concerns Regarding Law Enforcement Use of Face Recognition Technology

Across the country, local, state, and federal law enforcement and immigration agencies use face recognition systems to identify, track, and target individuals. More than half of all U.S. adults are already in face recognition databases used for criminal investigations. This technology dramatically expands law enforcement’s power and poses severe threats to everyone’s safety, wellbeing, and freedoms of expression and association—but especially for Black and Brown communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities, Indigenous communities, and other people historically and currently marginalized and targeted by policing.

Much of the public debate has focused on the alarming inaccuracy of face recognition systems, particularly on women and people with darker skin. In at least three cases that are publicly known, police have relied on erroneous face recognition identifications to make wrongful arrests of Black men, underscoring the dangerous nature of this technology in the hands of law enforcement.

But improvements in the technology’s accuracy will not address the fundamental problem: face recognition expands the scope and power of law enforcement, an institution that has a long and documented history of racial discrimination and racial violence that continues to this day. In the context of policing, face recognition is always dangerous—no matter its accuracy. Throughout our nation’s history, law enforcement has used surveillance to silence dissent and to maintain white supremacy, from slave patrols to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Face recognition and other modern surveillance technologies promise to continue a history that has shown itself to be incompatible with the freedoms and rights of Black and Brown communities.

Given this history, it’s no surprise that many law enforcement agencies have adopted face recognition technologies in secret, without the input or approval of policymakers or the public. In cases where the public has learned of an agency’s use of face recognition, key details about how the system works and how it’s used often remain concealed, even from criminal defendants. The details that have been uncovered to date are troubling: agencies often run searches on “flawed” face data—matches based on low confidence thresholds, artist-drawn composite sketches, and images that have been heavily edited. The undersigned groups agree that law enforcement’s use of face recognition is invasive and harmful to all communities, with severe and disproportionate harms for Black and Brown communities.

The most comprehensive approach to addressing the harms of face recognition would be to entirely cease its use by law enforcement. The six concerns outlined below highlight why the strongest policy action on face recognition is urgently needed.

Read the full letter, including the full list of signatories, here.