ACLU sues to find out status of facial recognition mass surveillance in America

Posted on Nov 1, 2019 by Caleb Chen
department of justice sued facial recognition

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice (DoJ), and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The case was filed in a Massachusetts federal court on Tuesday, October 29th. The filing asks for details about how the government currently uses and audits the use of facial recognition software. More specifically, the ACLU is seeking to force the government to reveal specifics about its partnerships with the facial recognition companies that it works with. Read the ACLU’s filed Face Recognition Surveillance Complaint on their site.

The ACLU’s attorneys passionately explained why the unchecked use of facial recognition software is undoubtedly a constitutional problem that will need to be addressed:

“These technologies have the potential to enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale. Such surveillance would permit the government to pervasively track people’s movements and associations in ways that threaten core constitutional values.”

ACLU sues FBI, DOJ, and DEA for facial recognition information

As rumors and proof of facial recognition pilot programs continued to mount, the ACLU first sent in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in early 2019 requesting information on the government’s current programs. Ten months later, the ACLU still hasn’t received a response so they have now started down the judicial route to bring America’s facial recognition mass surveillance programs to light.

What is public knowledge currently is only there thanks to a hodgepodge of court documents that reference existing American facial recognition programs. We know that these three letter agencies currently run facial recognition searches against a database which has over 640 million entries – mostly gathered from each of the states’ Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This database is overseen by a division of the FBI known as Facial Analysis, Comparison and Evaluation (FACE). That information is known only thanks to a report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this year.

One company that we know is working with the government on facial recognition software is none other than Amazon. For the last few years, Amazon has been piloting its Rekognition facial recognition software to schools and local law enforcement across the country. The thing is, Rekognition was shown to mismatch members of Congress to dozens of mugshots by an ACLU experiment. A further experiment yielded similar results, but for professional football players. One concern is that the facial recognition software being used may have biases built in that could continue many of the racial injustices that are currently present.

Some American cities are starting to fight back against facial recognition software

As quick as Americans are to point the finger at authoritarian China and point out that facial recognition is a norm there, perhaps it is time for a little introspection. While the United States is probably a lot further away from considering banning face masks in public like China has done in Hong Kong. Around the world, other countries such as India are also considering wide sweeping facial recognition databases and software.

Some jurisdictions are landing on the flp side of the coin, though. San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland have passed laws against facial recognition in California while across the country Somerville has also done the same in Massachusetts. It’s clear that facial recognition technology needs to be regulated in some form, but the dialogue on that can’t even begin if the government refuses to be transparent about its existing facial recognition capabilities and practices.