ACLU, Civil Rights Groups Call on Biden to Halt Federal Use of Facial Recognition Technology

February 17, 2021 12:00 pm

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of more than 40 organizations are calling on President Biden to take executive action imposing a federal moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology.

The letter, sent today alongside the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Amnesty International, among others, urges the Biden administration to take three critical steps addressing the use of facial recognition technology by the government. This includes placing a moratorium on all federal government use of facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric technology; preventing state and local governments from using federal funds to purchase or access the technology; and supporting legislation that would codify into law the federal moratorium and place additional limitations on federal funding of the technology.

“Facial recognition technology is a threat to civil rights and civil liberties when it works, and when it doesn’t. It disproportionately misidentifies people of color, women, trans people, and other marginalized groups, but its ability to track our movements across space and time would be dangerous even if it worked perfectly,” said Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU. “Multiple Black men have been arrested and incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit after facial recognition technology falsely identified them, and its use will continue to disproportionately harm marginalized communities, especially Black and Brown people. In keeping with President Biden’s commitment to racial equity, he must immediately take this important first step.”

Multiple studies, including by the ACLU of Northern California, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research, and the U.S. government, have found that facial recognition technology is biased against people of color, women, trans people and other marginalized groups. A 2018 study led by Black researchers at MIT concluded that some facial analysis algorithms misclassified Black women nearly 35 percent of the time, while nearly always getting it right for white men.

The ACLU tested Amazon’s Rekognition software in 2018 against photos of members of Congress and found that 28 were falsely matched to mugshots, with lawmakers of color misidentified at disproportionately high rates. The federal government in 2019 released its own findings on facial recognition technology, concluding that the technology generally works best on middle-aged white men’s faces, and not so well for people of color, women, children, or the elderly.

Multiple Black men, including Robert Williams, have been falsely arrested based on erroneous facial recognition matches. Williams was arrested in front of his wife and two young daughters for a crime he did not commit and was held in custody for more than 30 hours before police finally released him, all due to the reliance on flawed technology by Detroit police. There are likely many others who have been falsely arrested due to the technology, and the numbers will only grow if its use continues.

The biased and error-filled nature of facial recognition is not its only problem, however. Even if it worked flawlessly, the technology would give the government the ability to track our movements at all times through public and private spaces, to houses of worship, political meetings, bars, health care appointments, and many other places that reveal aspects of our private lives. This technology threatens our expectation of privacy and its pervasive use chills our associational, speech, and privacy rights unlike any technology previously deployed. That is why the ACLU is also leading a nationwide effort to defend privacy rights and civil liberties against the growing threat of facial recognition surveillance, and for years has been calling on Congress to immediately stop the law enforcement use of the technology nationwide.

Multiple jurisdictions have banned law enforcement use of facial recognition technology as part of ACLU-led campaigns, including San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, California; Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Northampton, Springfield, and Somerville, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Portland, Maine; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the state of Vermont. New York state also suspended use of facial recognition in schools and California suspended its use with police-worn body cameras.

The full letter is here:

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