To demonstrate exactly why tougher restrictions—including a ban for government agencies—should be placed on facial recognition technology, digital privacy rights advocates Thursday morning showed up on Capitol Hill to deploy the controversial technology against lawmakers, corporate lobbyists, and even members of the press.
"This should probably be illegal," said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, the group behind the effort, in a statement. And that's the point.
"Until Congress takes action to ban facial recognition surveillance," Greer said, "it's terrifyingly easy for anyone—a government agent, a corporation, or just a creepy stalker—to conduct biometric monitoring and violate basic rights at a massive scale."
The group is using the commercially available Rekognition software, made by Amazon, to scan the faces of thousands of people walking by in Washington, D.C. and then cross-checking those faces with a database to "track down" their possible identities. Part of their "Ban Facial Recognition" demand, Fight for the Future noted that a wide coalition of privacy and civil liberties groups—including Greenpeace, Color of Change, United We Dream, Council on American Islamic Relations, and many others—have endorsed their campaign.
As of this writing, according to the ScanCongress.com website, the activists have already scanned the faces of 9,240 people.
Nice tie @RepDeSaulnier! @Amazon Rekognition just identified you as a part of https://t.co/qnxlS8z9zu, based on this image from our video feed.
This technology is dangerous. We are calling on you to do your job and protect the privacy of your constituents: #BanFacialRecognition pic.twitter.com/eCE08fSE7n
— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) November 14, 2019
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Watch a livestream of the activists as they gather the images:
"Several cities have already banned the controversial technology outright, including San Francisco, Somerville, MA, Berkeley, CA, and Oakland, CA," the group noted in a statement, "and there is growing bipartisan support in Congress to address the issue at the federal level.
Greer said she and other activists are scanning people in the nation's capital city to make a very specific point. "We need an immediate ban on law enforcement and government use of face surveillance," she said, "and should urgently and severely limit its use for private and commercial purposes."
After the protest, the group said it will release a web tool on ScanCongress.com to allow people who were in the D.C. area on Thursday to upload a photo and check whether their face was scanned. Within two weeks, they said, all the data will be destroyed.
"We're going to delete the data that we collect," Greer said. Other people or agencies, however, she warned "could use the same technology to do unimaginable harm."