May 22, 2019 - Technology

Facial recognition under fire

Photo of human silhouettes and a security camera

Photo: Steffi Loos/Getty

Government use of facial recognition systems came under biting attack on both sides of the country today — in Congress and at one of the largest tech companies in the world.

Why it matters: Momentum is picking up to limit police facial recognition, driven by widespread concerns about the technology's accuracy and fairness. Slowing its rollout would be a serious blow to an emerging field that has so far grown unchecked.

What's happening: Critics turned up the heat in Washington state and Washington, D.C.

  • At Amazon's shareholder meeting in Seattle, investors voted on two proposals to limit the company from selling its facial recognition software to governments.
  • On Capitol Hill, the House Government Oversight Committee displayed a rare bipartisan drive to consider adopting restrictions for the technology.

Amazon shareholders voted down the proposals, as was widely expected. Privacy groups claimed that their appearance on the ballot — despite Amazon's complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission — shows that investors are concerned with a potential hit from selling an untested tech.

  • Matt Cagle, an ACLU staff attorney, told Axios ahead of the Amazon meeting:
"It is an embarrassment for Amazon's leadership that their failure to address this technology's obvious dangers — to civil rights and the company's reputation — has come to this: a shareholder intervention."

But the House hearing suggested that even if private companies don't act, Congress may. Lawmakers at either extreme of the political spectrum — staunch Trump ally Mark Meadows and progressive superhero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — came down on the same side of the question. Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, said:

"You’ve now hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together. … I’m here to tell you we’re serious about this and let’s get together and work on legislation. The time is now before it goes out of control."

Context: It's been a tough couple of weeks for facial recognition. Last week, San Francisco voted to implement a complete ban on the city's use of facial recognition surveillance.

What's next: The House Government Oversight Committee is inviting witnesses from law enforcement to an upcoming second hearing on the same topic, which promises to sound very different.

Go deeper: Uncovering secret government AI

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