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Concerns mount over AI-powered surveillance tech

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Mar 19, 2024
Illustration of a silhouette of a person with facial recognition marks on their face.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Civil rights advocates are sounding the alarm over what they call the Biden administration's flimsy language regulating facial recognition technology.

Why it matters: The government is increasingly turning to AI-powered facial recognition technology for law and immigration enforcement.

  • But that technology contains the potential for error and thus the potential to misidentify individuals, especially those in communities of color who are disproportionately racially profiled and surveilled.

What we're watching: The Office of Management and Budget has until the end of March to issue guidance to federal agencies on how to use AI and manage its risks.

  • Draft guidance states that chief agency AI officers can waive civil rights and privacy risk assessments when they impede on critical operations, such as those concerning law enforcement and national security.
  • Agencies are required to report to OMB the scope, justifications and supporting evidence of granting a waiver within 30 days.

"We think that's a huge mistake," said UnidosUs senior director Laura MacCleery, referring to the exemptions.

  • "Those are the places where uses of technology could be most undemocratic."
  • "They need to embrace rather than run away from the applicability of basic rights across every domain, but particularly around policing and immigration enforcement."
  • Privacy advocates say the waivers should be removed so companies will be incentivized to design the tech in a way that will protect people's personal data.

The waivers section in its current form "basically allows agencies to avoid the safeguards set out in the OMB guidance at their own discretion," said Brennan Center senior director Faiza Patel.

  • "We think that is contrary to what the White House has been trying to do here and what civil society has been calling for, which is greater transparency and safeguards."

The other side: DHS science and technology under secretary Dimitri Kusnezov told Axios that privacy and civil rights are at the core of DHS work and the OMB guidance won't "get us to relax."

  • Asked whether he's worried about a future administration's approach to the waivers, Kusnezov said: "I have no idea how to predict anything after the end of this year."
  • "I've been in government now through many administrations, and so I've certainly seen changes in positions and outlooks and operations. So yeah, things are possible."

Catch up quick: DHS and DOJ are working to improve their use of facial recognition technology, following a GAO report showing the agencies were using it without adequate staff training or specific civil rights policies.

  • GAO is continuing to monitor both agencies as they implement the recommendations, director for justice and law enforcement issues Gretta Goodwin said.

The big picture: Regulators around the world are grappling with how to balance protecting civil rights and upholding national security when using surveillance technology.

  • In Europe, civil society groups remain dissatisfied with the EU AI Act language.
  • "The guardrails are stuff that you can easily finagle from the start, and then it's basically an 'ask forgiveness, not permission' kind of deal," New America's Open Technology Institute senior policy analyst David Morar said of Europe's approach.
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