Privacy SOS

Americans overwhelmingly want face surveillance regulation, but government and Big Tech aren’t waiting for it

The use of face surveillance technologies is fast becoming the norm in government and the private sector, but a new survey by the Brookings Institution shows agencies and companies deploying this technology are out of step with the desires of most Americans in rushing to deploy it without any restraints. An overwhelming majority—nearly 70 percent—of people surveyed said they support the regulation of face surveillance technology, with half calling for regulation of law enforcement’s use of the tool.

As privacy scholars Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger recently argued, face surveillance is the “perfect tool for oppression.” The technology uses a type of biometric identification that traces the distance between points on faces to create face templates. These templates are then fed into algorithms which compare images of a person from a digital image or a video frame to a database of other images or templates, looking for a match.  

Right now, small start-ups and big tech institutions like Amazon are marketing face surveillance tech to schools, shopping malls, app developers, and airports, while consumer-facing companies like Jet Blue, Live Nation, Nike, Apple, and Virgin are pushing the technology on us in public and private space, whether we want it or not. A web search for the words “face recognition technology in marketing” returns over 49 million results.

As Hartzog and Selinger write in their essay calling for a face surveillance ban, “The mere existence of facial recognition systems, which are often invisible, harms civil liberties, because people will act differently if they suspect they’re being surveilled.” The privacy scholars sketch out a short list of the harms that will inevitably befall us in a face-tracked world:

Clearly, the most threatening and dystopian deployments of face surveillance we will encounter arise in the government context. Face recognition technology in a CCTV-blanketed world enables perfect government surveillance, meaning it eradicates anonymity and privacy in public (and potentially even some private) space. This technology gives already unaccountable, discriminatory, and opaque government agencies like the police and federal intelligence agencies unprecedented power to invisibly create comprehensive and persistent records of people’s movements, interests and associations. It is the stuff of dystopian horror come to life.

Americans are rightfully concerned about this near-future world. The Brookings survey asked people about their views of face recognition in four contexts: retail stores, airports, stadiums, and schools. In no case did a majority of people surveyed feel favorably about the deployment of this technology. Half reported that they oppose the use of face surveillance technology in the retail context, while only 27 percent supported it. In the airport context, 44 percent expressed concern about using the technology for identification and security purposes, while only 31 percent supported it.

Despite these concerns, the federal government is plowing ahead with plans to deploy face surveillance systems in airports throughout the country. In September, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) released its roadmap for expanding biometrics in airports. Among other things, the report reveals that the agency plans to work with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to link up existing image and tracking systems, towards the end of using face surveillance to track people from the moment they step inside the airport until the moment they board their plane. The goal appears to be to replace all existing forms of identification with one: your face.

Fast technology, slow law

Exponential advances in processing power make these systems inexpensive and relatively easy to deploy, enabling persistent mass surveillance and tracking in real time and retroactively. The falling cost of computing power, storage, and web connected surveillance cameras removes a traditional limit on the government’s ability to deploy extensive networks built on this technology. But while the technology is developing rapidly, enabling the widespread deployment of face surveillance in all areas of our lives, the law has failed to keep pace. There is currently no federal law explicitly addressing the technology, and the vast majority of states have no statutes on the books protecting us from exploitative face tracking or repressive surveillance. 

As Hartzog and Selinger argue in their call to arms against face surveillance technology, the deployment of these systems infringes on privacy and chills the exercise of protected speech, association, and religious activity, posing threats to individual rights and liberties and to the safety of communities of color, immigrants, and activists. For these reasons, the ACLU has joined with dozens of national and local civil rights and racial justice partners to call on major tech companies like Amazon to stop selling face surveillance systems to government agencies.

According to the Brookings survey, these civil society groups are acting in accordance with the views of most people in the country. If Brookings is right, half of Americans believe that there should be limits on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement, and half of those surveyed said they oppose the creation of face surveillance databases. Nearly 70 percent want some form of government regulation.

Meanwhile, tech workers at companies building these dystopian technologies are raising the alarm, calling on their executives to stop selling them to law enforcement agencies. At a Wired conference this week, Jeff Bezos defended working with the government, arguing that if companies like Amazon refuse government contracts, “this country is going to be in trouble.” Bezos said controversial tools like Amazon’s face tracking Rekognition product, like the printing press, are “two sided.” “The book was invented,” he said, “and people could write really evil books and lead bad revolutions with them and create fascist empires with books.” Bezos argued that society’s “immune response” will “eventually” mitigate any harms arising from the use of persistent surveillance tools like Rekognition.

The day after Bezos made these astonishing comments, an anonymous Amazon employee published a public letter calling for his employer to stop selling face surveillance technology to the police. The concerns aren’t hypothetical, the employee wrote: “Amazon is designing, marketing, and selling a system for dangerous mass surveillance right now.” An immune system responds to attacks, but some attacks can be deadly. Face surveillance that undermines Americans’ ability to exercise our First Amendment rights could be the kind of attack that overwhelms our democratic immune system. For that reason, Amazon and other companies should stop selling it to government agencies until Congress and state legislatures can take meaningful action to protect the public from its inevitable harms.

The Brookings survey on Americans’ views of face recognition technology shows that, despite the current lack of regulation, people are increasingly aware of the dangers this technology poses. Now it’s up to us to translate that awareness into action.

This blog post was co-authored by Kade Crockford and Emiliano Falcon.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.