Facial-recognition technology is here. Facebook uses it to find you in photos. Instagram uses it to power those cute filters on your friends’ stories. You may even use it to unlock your iPhone.
Beyond these seemingly innocuous uses, however, are many more unsettling applications. Facial recognition technology is being deployed by law enforcement and security, covertly scanning everyone from pedestrians passing by street cameras to unsuspecting concertgoers. It’s also being leveraged to “read” personalities and emotions, incorporating those results into automated hiring systems or insurance rates. Soon, it will be deployed at security gates in major American airports. Thanks to a general absence of regulation, this consequential tech has marched virtually unabated into our everyday lives.
The Washington state Legislature this session took up what would have been a landmark bill to put a moratorium on the acquisition and use of facial recognition technology by government agencies. Drafted by the ACLU — and in line with other proposals around the country — this bill would have temporarily banned government use of facial recognition technology and given Washington voters a chance to stop, breathe, and have a serious and fair discussion about the role of pervasive surveillance technologies like facial recognition in our world.
But as the now-dead House Bill 1654 progressed through the Legislature, various interest groups gutted it and rolled back the moratorium entirely. Among those involved were law enforcement groups and tech behemoths like Amazon and Microsoft that stand to gain the most (and lose the least) from its implementation. Now, those same groups are pushing to include permissive provisions in a consumer data privacy bill, Senate Bill 5376, that would allow for public and private use of facial recognition without meaningful restrictions.
The dangers of facial recognition technology cannot be overstated. Prominent critics point to pernicious biases — especially against dark skin or young faces — that haven’t been adequately addressed. When tested, Amazon’s own “Rekognition” system falsely matched more than two dozen members of the United States Congress with criminal mug shots, including a disproportionate number of members of the Congressional Black Congress. Further work has shown how such systems confuse cultural markers of gender or sexuality (like makeup and hairstyles) with physiological ones, effectively “baking in” harmful stereotypes that limit their effectiveness across populations.
More importantly, facial recognition is not happening in a vacuum. It is plugging into existing surveillance structures that threaten millions of Americans daily, enabling the real-time monitoring of individuals by instantly linking faces up to the many information systems already available. One glance, and your face can be tied quickly to local law enforcement records, FBI files, DMV data, financial information, social media profiles, and more.
None of this is hypothetical. Many state and local police departments already have much of this access — they just need your face to supercharge it.
Worse, these structures are already marked by deep inequality. Surveilling Americans has always been a skewed affair, with certain groups bearing more of the burden than others — from persistent monitoring of religious minorities and communities of color to the invasive questioning heaped upon the poor to the systematic tracking of protesters exercising their rights to speech and assembly. Such inequality cannot be addressed by mere “tweaks” to the system. In fact, if facial recognition worked flawlessly, it would only make matters worse. It would simply “perfect” unfair and stifling patterns of targeting and abuse aimed at historically vulnerable populations.
Facial recognition is not a benign extension of existing surveillance practices — it’s rocket fuel. We should reject anything less than a moratorium. Passing watered-down and permissive versions of the bill now will only allow face recognition to penetrate deeper into our lives while unmaking any appetite we might have for regulation in the first place.
As a scholar of ethics and technology, the power facial recognition technology affords concerns me. As a mother raising a child against a backdrop of increased securitization and social instability, it terrifies and offends me.
And as residents of the state of Washington, we should demand legislation powerful enough to stand up to this threat.