Defund Facial Recognition
Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. George Floyd. Rayshard Brooks. Oluwatoyin Salau. Robert Forbes . As each story has emerged of a Black life violently ended by law enforcement, white nationalists, or other forms of interpersonal violence, a multiracial movement for Black lives, led by Black activists, has kept pace. What has also kept pace are the disturbing and highly advanced police technologies used to spy on these activists. My mother survived the surveillance of the FBI’s counterintelligence program as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s. As a second-generation Black activist, I’m tired of being spied on by the police.
In June, in the midst of a mushrooming protest movement against increasingly visible police killings of Black people and a simultaneously exploding coronavirus pandemic that is taking Black lives at a disproportionate rate, IBM made the surprising announcement that it would stop selling, researching, or developing facial-recognition services. Amazon and Microsoft followed with their own announcements that they would not sell facial-recognition services or products to state and local police departments, pending federal regulation. As activists have emphasized the long-standing demand to defund police with a more modern call for technology companies to cut ties with law-enforcement agencies, facial-recognition companies face a come-to-Jesus moment of their own. But the companies that are deciding not to sell these controversial products as a powerful protest movement gains traction may be motivated more by a careful calculation of financial and public-relations risks than by concern for Black lives.
Black people in the U.S. are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, and in Minneapolis, where in May George Floyd was killed by police, officers are seven times more likely to use force against Black people than against white people. But in the 21st century, police violence is not limited to the overtly physical kind. Although we may never know its full extent , there is real evidence that covert, high-tech surveillance of Black activists and journalists helps drive brutal policing.
In 2015, facial-recognition technology was used to track and arrest Baltimore protesters reacting to the police murder of Freddie Gray, the young Black man who died in police custody from spinal injuries for which no one was held responsible. In the past few weeks, Homeland Security has spied on protesters in 15 cities using drone surveillance, while police body cameras equipped with facial-recognition technology have captured images of protesters. The comedian John Oliver has raised concerns that unchecked facial recognition is now one of policing’s most powerful tools.
[ Read: Who owns your face? ]
Rooted in discredited pseudoscience and racist eugenics theories that claim to use facial structure and head shape to assess mental...