- Three activists wandered around busy spots in Washington, DC, on Thursday using camera phones to run people’s faces through facial-recognition software in protest against growing use of the technology.
- The software they used was Rekognition, Amazon’s commercially available and sometimes controversial facial-recognition tool.
- The protesters collected 13,740 face scans, including of one US congressman.
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Protesters who oppose facial recognition donned white hazmat suits and cameras to collect face scans of more than 13,000 people.
Activists from Fight for the Future mounted the protest in Washington, DC, on Thursday.
Three protesters wearing white jumpsuits bearing signs saying “Facial Recognition in Progress” scanned the faces of passersby using smartphones mounted on their heads. They used Amazon’s commercially available facial-recognition software, called Rekognition.
The protesters were making the point that facial recognition remained unregulated in the US. Private companies and the US government are increasingly adopting the technology, prompting fears of surveillance creep.
The protesters focused on the halls of Congress as well as busy metro stops, and they were looking in particular for members of Congress, journalists, and Amazon lobbyists, according to a press release.
The protest was livestreamed, and a tally was kept of how many people they scanned. The final count was 13,740, including 25 lobbyists, seven journalists, and one congressman, Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of California.
The website where the protest was livestreamed allows people to upload their picture to check whether they were among the 13,740 faces scanned. Fight for the Future says it will delete all the photos and data after two weeks.
“This should probably be illegal, but until Congress takes action to ban facial-recognition surveillance, it’s terrifyingly easy for anyone — a government agent, a corporation, or just a creepy stalker — to conduct biometric monitoring and violate basic rights at a massive scale,” Fight for the Future’s deputy director, Evan Greer, said in a statement. “We did this to make a point.”
The organization is calling for immediate legislation banning the use of facial-recognition technology by governmental bodies and law enforcement.
Four US cities have enforced their own facial-recognition bans: Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco in California, and Somerville, Massachusetts. The protest took place on the same day a bipartisan bill was introduced that would force the police to obtain a warrant before using facial recognition.
Fight for the Future’s methods were not universally welcomed. Chris Gilliard, an expert in privacy and tech policy, objected to the logic of using nonconsensual facial recognition on unsuspecting citizens, especially people of color.
—One Ring (doorbell) to surveil them all… (@hypervisible) November 14, 2019
Greer responded in a comment to Vice that Fight for the Future deliberately picked areas “already under surveillance” rather than residential areas, a logic Gilliard rejected. “Following that logic, I could set up my surveillance project in a neighborhood filled with Ring doorbells. After all, everyone in that neighborhood is in the system,” he tweeted.
Artificial-intelligence experts have expressed concerns specifically over the usage of Amazon’s Rekognition software by law enforcement, as researchers found it was more likely to misidentify women and people with darker complexions.