We scanned thousands of faces in DC today to show why facial recognition surveillance should be banned
Today, activists working with digital rights group Fight for the Future conducted live facial recognition surveillance in the halls of Congress and the area surrounding Capitol Hill, to show why this technology is so dangerous that it should be banned.
Our message for Congress is simple: make what we did today illegal.
Using Amazon’s commercially available Rekognition software — running on smartphones strapped to our heads — our team ran 13,732 biometric face scans in Washington, DC. By comparing live footage against a database we had assembled, the system successfully identified a member of Congress in real time: Representative Mark DeSaulnier of California.
Amazon’s facial recognition software also *thought* that it had identified 7 journalists and 25 Amazon lobbyists that we had pre-loaded into the database. But all of those matches turned out to be incorrect. The software even thought that it spotted singer Roy Orbison who of course has been deceased since 1988 (RIP).
This underscores our message: facial recognition is invasive and dangerous when it works, but it’s also dangerous when it doesn’t work. In our case, it’s easy to laugh when the software thinks a member of our team is an Amazon lobbyist, or when it thinks a random staffer is a prominent journalist. But law enforcement agencies are using flawed facial recognition software right now — and the potential harm of a mismatch is staggering. It could land an innocent person in prison, or worse. And current facial recognition algorithms exhibit systemic racial bias, exacerbating existing forms of discrimination in our criminal justice system.
Our team worked its way through the Rayburn office building of the House of Representatives, scanning thousands of people’s faces. We livestreamed the whole thing at ScanCongress.com
That page includes a tool that lets anyone upload a photo that we can check against the footage we collected to tell you if we scanned your face. If you were in DC today, or know someone who was, tell them to check.
We did this to prove a point and to pressure Congress to pass laws to ban facial recognition surveillance, so we’re going to delete all the footage and all the biometric data when we’re done. We also chose our location carefully: inside the capitol where everyone is already under video surveillance. But anyone else could easily do what we did, and right now it’s perfectly legal. A government agency can do this to monitor a marginalized population. A corporation can do it to harvest our biometric data and sell it for profit. A creepy stalker could do it to find their target in a crowd of people.
After several hours of scanning thousands of faces, our team of activists were approached by Capitol Hill police and threatened with arrest if they did not leave the Capitol grounds. They were thrown out not because they were using facial recognition surveillance — that’s perfectly legal until Congress gets off their butts and passes laws to ban it — but because police claimed they were violating a law against blocking passageways. Of course, they weren’t blocking passageways and we have the whole thing on video to prove it. It seems that Congress thinks facial recognition surveillance is just fine as long as its used on all of us but not them.
While our action was still going on, news reports started to emerge that Senators Coons and Lee had introduced a new bill related to facial recognition. Unfortunately, this bill falls far short of the type of legislation we need. It would do nothing to prevent the type of invasive facial recognition surveillance that we conducted today. And it contains gaping loopholes that authorize government and law enforcement to deploy facial recognition surveillance in all kinds of abusive ways.
Fight for the Future opposes this bill, and attempts by tech industry lobbyists to push for weak “regulation” of facial recognition. This technology is so dangerous that the only appropriate policy is an outright ban on government use and use for surveillance in public places. Several cities have already enacted bans, and more are poised to follow suit. Last month, we ran a successful campaign that got more than 40 of the worlds largest music festivals, including Coachella and SXSW, to make it clear they’re not using this privacy destroying, unsafe technology.
We will continue to update this post with photos and video as they come in. Tell everyone you know in Washington, DC to head over to ScanCongress.com to learn more, find out if we scanned their face, and contact their lawmakers demanding that they take action to ban facial recognition surveillance.
The photos and video in this post are available for use by press. Credit: Fight for the Future. Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org