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40 groups have called for a US moratorium on facial recognition technology

January 27, 2020
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The news: US government use of facial recognition technology should be banned “pending further review,” according to 40 organizations that signed a letter calling for a recommendation to be made to the president. 

The letter, drafted by the privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, cites the recent New York Times investigation of a facial recognition service used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the US. The company, Clearview AI, scraped public photographs from Facebook, YouTube, and other websites to create a database of more than three billion images. Such technology, the letter argues, not only risks being inaccurate for people of color but could be used to “control minority populations and limit dissent.” The letter was signed by organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Color of Change, Fight for the Future, and the Consumer Federation of America, and sent to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board, an agency within the executive branch. 

The background: EPIC’s letter is one of the biggest efforts so far in the fight to stem the use of facial recognition technologies. Cities including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, have banned their local governments from using facial recognition, and activists are trying to prevent private companies from deploying the technology too. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission is considering a ban on facial recognition in public for five years. However, London police announced just last week that they would deploy live facial recognition cameras across the city.

Will it work? The letter is certainly another sign that attitudes toward facial recognition are becoming increasingly negative. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for a complete ban on police use. Legislators in Washington state are considering a bill that would regulate facial recognition in public spaces by both private and public companies. 

The conversation is changing, too. While initial concerns focused on the technology’s accuracy and bias, lawmakers who attended Congress’s third hearing on facial recognition earlier this month have started asking whether the technology should be used even if it were 100 percent accurate

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