Facial recognition surveillance must be banned, says Fight for the Future

The online activist group Fight for the Future is calling for a Federal ban on facial recognition surveillance.

Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, compared facial recognition to nuclear or biological weapons: while we can’t go back in time to ban the development of those technologies, we still have time to stop facial recognition before we get to the point where we’re living in what the campaign calls a nation with “automated and ubiquitous monitoring of an entire population.”


This surveillance technology poses such a profound threat to the future of human society and basic liberty that its dangers far outweigh any potential benefits. We don’t need to regulate it, we need to ban it entirely.

This is the latest campaign from the group that led a targeted internet blackout in 2015: thousands of sites blocked and redirected Congressional URLs to a Patriot Act protest page. Then, in 2017, Fight for the Future launched a last-ditch attempt to save net neutrality with its Break the Internet campaign.

Its latest call to action, BanFacialRecognition.com, offers visitors a form that connects them to their Congressional and local lawmakers in order to ask them to ban this “unreliable, biased” technology, which the group calls “a threat to basic rights and safety.”

Fight for the Future charges Silicon Valley lobbyists with “disingenuously calling for light ‘regulation’” of facial recognition so they can continue to profit from the rapid spread of this “surveillance dragnet,” thereby ducking the real debate: namely, should this technology even exist?

Industry-friendly and government-friendly oversight will not fix the dangers inherent in law enforcement’s use of facial recognition: we need an all-out ban.

‘It’s broken’

The campaign includes a laundry list of the criticisms that stick to facial recognition technology like so many civil rights burrs. One of its many problems is a high error rate. For example, as the Independent reported last year, freedom of information requests show that the facial recognition software used by the UK’s biggest police force – London’s Metropolitan Police – gets false positives in more than 98% of the alerts it generated. The UK’s biometrics commissioner, Professor Paul Wiles, told the news outlet that the technology is “not yet fit for use”.

As we reported in 2017, the Met’s use of facial recognition fell flat on its face two years in a row. Its “top-of-the-line” automated facial recognition (AFR) system, which it trialled at London’s Notting Hill Carnival, couldn’t even tell the difference between a young woman and a balding man. One man was wrongfully detained after being erroneously tagged as being wanted on a warrant for a rioting offense.

Multiple studies have found that AFR is an inherently racist technology: facial recognition algorithms have been found to be less accurate at identifying black faces.

During a scathing US House oversight committee hearing on the FBI’s use of the technology in 2017, it emerged that 80% of the people in the FBI’s facial recognition database don’t have any sort of arrest record. Yet the system’s recognition algorithm inaccurately identifies them during criminal searches 15% of the time, with black women most often being misidentified.

From the Ban Facial Recognition site:

These errors have real-world impacts: wrongful imprisonment, deportation, or worse.

Even though facial recognition has proved to be more error-prone than not, it’s being widely deployed by law enforcement in multiple countries. And once governments have our biometric information in their databases, it’s “an easy target for identity thieves or state-sponsored hackers,” Fight for the Future says.

In fact, our biometric data has already been ripped off, the group said, pointing to last month’s theft of a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) database full of travelers’ photos and license plates.

‘It’s invasive’

Fight for the Future points out that “Law enforcement officers frequently search facial recognition databases without warrants – or even reasonable suspicion that you’ve done anything wrong.”

It’s not just facial image databases that police use for non-sanctioned uses, looking up romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with official police work in criminal-history and driver databases. We’ve seen multiple cases of cops treating their state’s driver license databases like a kind of Facebook, using the databases to look up and ogle female colleagues’ images hundreds of times. It’s a hobby that’s set taxpayers back hefty amounts when those women have sued over breach of privacy.

‘It threatens our future’

Fight for the future says that facial recognition is uniquely Orwellian, and we’ve got to stop its spread before we’re living under an authoritarian state:

Facial recognition is unlike any other form of surveillance. It enables automated and ubiquitous monitoring of an entire population, and it is nearly impossible to avoid. If we don’t stop it from spreading, it will be used not to keep us safe, but to control and oppress us – just as it is already being used in authoritarian states.

The backlash is growing

As Fight for the Future pointed out in a press release about the campaign to ban facial recognition, police use of the technology has already been banned in San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.

The group said that Axon, which makes tasers and body cams for police officers, has said that it wouldn’t commercialize facial recognition because it currently can’t “ethically justify” its use.

Fight for the Future also cited recent revelations that the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are reportedly using driver’s license photos for facial recognition searches without license holders’ knowledge or consent. Doing so gives them access to millions of Americans’ driver’s license photos, creating what critics have called an “unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have been dumbfounded by law enforcement’s audacity – no elected official gave permission for 18 state DMVs to share their driver’s license databases – and have looked to ban it in the absence of rules about its use by law enforcement and government agencies.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said during a House Oversight Committee hearing that it’s “scary.”

It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. This should concern us all.

Fight for the Future:

We’re joining this outcry to call for a complete ban on facial recognition. It’s time the federal government take a stand now to prevent this technology from proliferating across the country.

But while there well may be bipartisan support for banning facial recognition, there’s also bipartisan support for keeping it, propped up by strong tech lobbying efforts. During the House Oversight Committee hearing, “Facial Recognition Technology (Part 1): Its Impact on our Civil Rights and Liberties,” which took place in May, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had this to say:

The consensus on this issue I think is bipartisan, but also the opposition is bipartisan as well. You know, big tech is a very strong lobby that has captured a lot of members of both parties.