Facial Surveillance Draws Bipartisan Concern in Congress

Although the technology is in widespread use by federal, state and local governments, some lawmakers worry there is little transparency on how and why it is being used — or on security measures to protect sensitive data.

by Sabrina Eaton, The Plain Dealer / January 16, 2020
Shutterstock/vchal

(TNS) — Civil liberty issues posed by increasingly omnipresent surveillance cameras in public places that record and store people’s images are one of the few areas that Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives can agree on addressing.

Everyone from ultra-conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Champaign County to ultra-liberal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York expressed concerns about misuse of the technology on Wednesday at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Jordan, the committee’s top Republican, said he fears government abuses of the technology could infringe on rights protected by the U.S. Constitution’s first and fourth amendments.

“This issue transcends politics,” said Jordan. “It doesn’t matter if it is a President Trump rally or a Bernie Sanders rally, the idea of American citizens being tracked and catalogued for merely showing their faces in public is deeply troubling.”

The Democratic chair of the committee, New York’s Carolyn Maloney, said the technology is widely used in schools, grocery stores, airports, malls, theme parks, stadiums, mobile phones, social media platforms, doorbell camera footage and hiring decisions, and said her committee is “committed to introducing and marking-up common-sense facial recognition legislation in the future."

Although the technology is in widespread use by federal, state and local governments, Maloney said there is "very little transparency on how and why it is being used - or on security measures to protect sensitive data.

“We have a responsibility to not only encourage innovation, but to protect the privacy and safety of American consumers,” Maloney continued.

Members of Congress at the hearing noted that a recent American Civil Liberties Union survey of Amazon’s face surveillance technology found its “Rekognition” software incorrectly matched photos of 28 current members of Congress, including Cincinnati Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup, with mugshots of people who were arrested for crimes.

A disproportionate number of those who it misidentified were members of racial minorities, including California Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who declared the technology “fundamentally flawed” at the hearing. He said that when the technology makes mistakes, the consequences can be severe.

“It can be life or death if someone thinks you are a violent felon,” said Gomez. “We need to start taking this seriously.”

Several witnesses at the hearing were similarly critical, with Meredith Whittaker of New York University’s AI Institute testifying that it “does not work as advertised."

National Institute of Standards and Technology analyses of dozens of facial recognition algorithms used by 99 developers found a variety of accuracy rates among them, testified the director of its information technology laboratory, Charles H. Romine. He said most had higher rates of false positives in Asian and African American faces relative to those of Caucasians, and also higher false positive rates for Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“Some produce significantly fewer errors than others,” said Romine.

Other witnesses pointed out the technology’s more beneficial aspects: airlines using it to let travelers get through airports more easily, social networks using it to enhance user convenience and security and retailers using it to reduce shoplifting.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Vice President Daniel Castro told the committee that newer facial recognition algorithms perform more accurately than older systems. He said Congress should establish policies that support positive uses of the technology but limit potential abuses.

Members of the committee said they’d be concerned about the technology’s use, even if it was more accurate. Ocasio-Cortez noted the technology could be used by authoritarian regimes and described it as "almost automating injustice.” Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly suggested that perhaps people should be required to give consent for their photos to be used.

“We need to set a standard and make sure government isn’t using it in an improper fashion,” added North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows.

Jordan said he expects the committee will mark up bipartisan legislation in upcoming weeks that will examine how the federal government is using the technology now, and that will stop its use from expanding while Congress evaluates how it should be handled.

“What we’re talking about now is just a good government bill,” said Jordan. “Tell us what you’re doing. Tell us how you’re doing it. And while you’re telling us that, don’t expand it. We’re not even saying stop. We’re just saying no expansion while we learn what you’re doing currently."

©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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