'Unscrupulous' Tech Company Rebuked for Pushing Facial Recognition Tool for Authorities to Track Coronavirus

"Absolutely the fuck not." 

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A display shows a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference, which showcases artificial intelligence, deep learning, virtual reality, and autonomous machines, in Washington, D.C., November 1, 2017. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Digital rights group Fight for the Future didn't mince words Wednesday in its response to reporting that a controversial tech company is in discussions with federal and state authorities to use facial recognition technology to help track the spread of Covid-19.

"This is a clear example of an unscrupulous company trying to exploit this public health crisis to sell dangerous, invasive, and ineffective surveillance software," said Sarah Roth-Gaudette, Fight for the Future's executive director.

The company in question is U.S.-based Clearview AI, a firm that has a database of at least three billion images and the New York Times said recently "might end privacy as we know it." The ACLU has said the company threatens a "privacy, security, and civil liberties nightmare" by marketing its facial recognition tool security to law enforcement agencies.

Now, Clearview has its sights set on taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to further push its facial recognition tool, NBC News reported this week. The company's CEO, Hoan Ton-That, spoke to the outlet about the plan for harnessing footage from surveillance cameras to trace the path of someone found to be infected with Covid-19.

Ton-That brushed off privacy concerns, saying, that people are "in the public area so there's not necessarily [the] expectation of privacy."

"Will an agency that uses your technology on top of other contact tracing technologies wind up with a repository that includes my identity and my health information and my whereabouts over the last few months in a way that we're all going to be uncomfortable with?" asked NBC's Jacob Ward.

Ton-That replied that "it's really up to those agencies" as to what they will do with that trove of data.

Evan Greer, Fight for the Future's deputy director, gave the proposal to use Clearview AI's tool to fight the spread of Covid-19 an unequivocal no.

"Absolutely the fuck not," she said in a statement.

Fight for the Future said that Ton-That's indication that the personal data would be in the hands of federal and state agencies without safeguards against abuse was just one of a number of concerns about the proposal. The group also called Clearview "the world's most cartoonishly shady surveillance vendor" and said the tool would likely not even be effective given facial recognition softwares' frequent misidentification problems.

Fight for the Future's warning comes amid broader concerns that the coronavirus pandemic is being exploited to further push invasive digital surveillance.

In a statement earlier this month, over 100 human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, addressed that threat. "An increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities—undermining the effectiveness of any public health response," the groups wrote.

"Technology can play an important role in the global effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic," Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, said, "however, this does not give governments carte blanche to expand digital surveillance."

"The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers," she continued. "We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now."

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