Democratic lawmakers recently proposed a moratorium on facial recognition use by federal agencies, as well as on technology for voice recognition and gait recognition, with tough restrictions that withhold federal grants from state and local governments until they pass their own bans. While perennial government moratoriums are not as restrictive or effective as an outright ban, they are far more useful than short term corporate moratoriums and remain a useful way to restrain the use of facial-recognition technology by law enforcement, on the road to its abolition. Now, all that facial-recognition companies need to do is get out of the way.
In Detroit, a city well-known for passionate, community-led organizing, a caravan of about 40 cars recently drove around the homes of Detroit City Council members demanding that they vote against a $219,000 contract extension to a facial-recognition-software provider. The Detroit Police Department pairs images taken from various sources, including Project Green Light—which installs high-definition cameras paid for by local businesses—with its facial-recognition software to identify suspects in violent crimes. Pressuring local lawmakers to vote against specific facial-recognition contracts is another way to defund face surveillance at the city level.
On the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security has made about $1.8 billion available this fiscal year for local communities in its preparedness-grants program, but for some of these grants, localities must agree to allocate at least 25 percent to law enforcement. And then there’s the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which militarizes civilian police by providing surplus military equipment to law-enforcement agencies. Additional major sources of funding for facial-recognition technology are the budgets for federal programs like the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Secret Service.
And then, there are police departments’ corporate backers. Companies across the U.S. are partnering with police foundations that donate millions to local police departments for things like surveillance networks, software, and equipment. Amazon, Motorola, Verizon, Facebook, Google, and AT&T are all major corporate supporters of these foundations.
Joy Buolamwini, a co-founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, said in testimony before Congress, “These tools are too powerful, and the potential for grave shortcomings, including extreme demographic and phenotypic bias, is clear. We cannot afford to allow government agencies to adopt these tools and begin making decisions based on their outputs today and figure out later how to rein in misuses and abuses.”
White supremacy defines how society is structured and how new technologies are used, and it moves at the pace of capital. American policing has, for centuries, upheld white supremacy’s laws and order at the brutal expense of Black lives. As activists innovate strategies to defund American policing and invest in communities, we must not open the door to an expanded and unaccountable security state with automated eyes trained on Black and brown dissent. Ending the system of U.S. policing as we know it must be coupled with strategies to ban facial recognition and the other 21st-century surveillance technologies that empower that system.