Community Organizations Urge Congress to Halt Government Use of Face Recognition Technology

June 17, 2021 2:00 pm

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WASHINGTON — A coalition of nearly 70 civil rights and community-based organizations working at the state and local levels across the country, including affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, have come together to urge Congress to take immediate action to prohibit government acquisition and use of dangerous face recognition.

In a letter sent Thursday to members of Congress, the organizations are demanding the passage of legislation that stops the federal government from acquiring or using face surveillance or other biometric surveillance technologies, bar state and local governments from using federal funds to purchase or use face recognition, and support local grassroots-powered progress by rejecting any Big Tech efforts to preempt state and local bans and moratoria. The letter follows the reintroduction of the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, ACLU-endorsed legislation that directly addresses the threats of face recognition to civil rights and civil liberties.

“The harms of face recognition are felt firsthand in our communities, where it is being used to supersize racist policing, track activists, target immigrants, and impede access to unemployment relief and other needed public resources,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Across the country, local coalitions are fighting back to protect our communities and our lives — and winning. Now it is time for Congress to stand in full support of this grassroots-powered progress and take immediate action to halt government use of face recognition.”

“We are at a critical moment, with the fight against face recognition coming alongside a nationwide reckoning with racism and policing,” said Ashley Del Villar, digital privacy campaign coordinator for La Resistencia. “We must take this opportunity to recognize the role of surveillance in exacerbating the inherent racism of our law and immigration enforcement. Stopping face and other biometric surveillance is necessary as we confront systemic harms against Black and Brown people.”

Diverse organizations including Color Of Change, MediaJustice, Mijente, and dozens of other groups sent this letter to highlight the grave danger of face recognition, particularly how its use threatens the lives of Black people, immigrants, and others. The technology played a central role in the wrongful arrests of multiple Black men, including Robert Williams, Michael Oliver, and Nijeer Park, and has been proven to be inaccurate in multiple studies, including by the U.S. government.

ACLU affiliates across the country are working in deep partnership with other local grassroots organizations to spur a nationwide movement to defend privacy rights and civil liberties from the threat of face recognition surveillance. These efforts have pushed multiple jurisdictions to prohibit law enforcement use of face recognition technology, including San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland, California; Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Easthampton, Northampton, Springfield, and Somerville, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Portland, Maine; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; King County, Washington; and the states of Virginia and Vermont. New York state also suspended use of face recognition in schools and California suspended its use with police-worn body cameras. Direct activism has also forced companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft to stop or pause face recognition sales to law enforcement.

The letter is here:

An ACLU petition targeting Biden and Congress to halt government use of face recognition technology is here:

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