Congress found something to agree on: facial recognition

Not so fast.
Not so fast.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

US House of Representative members across the political aisle took turns skewering the adoption of facial recognition by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies today, at a committee hearing on the technology’s impact on civil rights and liberties.

“The government could monitor you without your knowledge and enter your face into a database that could be used in virtually unrestricted ways,” House oversight chairman Elijah Cummings said in his opening statement. “We need to do more to safeguard the rights of free speech and assembly under the First Amendment, the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment, and the right of equal protection under the law under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The panelists questioned by House members include Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, who has done key research into the racial and gender disparity in facial recognition, as well as Clare Garvey, senior associate at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Privacy and Technology, who has reported many cases of police using facial recognition in the US. Also on the panel were Dr. Cedric Alexander, former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and representatives from the ACLU and the University of D.C.’s Andrew Ferguson, who wrote The Rise of Big Data Policing.

The group of panelists painted a picture familiar to anyone who has followed AI research and press coverage in recent years: Facial recognition is unregulated and imprecise, they argued, and runs the risk of infringing on many rights promised by the US Constitution.

There was broad consensus among House members who spoke at the hearing that these concerns need to be addressed. Lawmakers agreed that government overreach into Americans’ privacy is a bipartisan concern.

“You’ve hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together,” said Mark Meadows of North Carolina’s 11th district. “The time is now, before it gets out of control.”

California representative Jimmy Gomez said that he had nine meetings with Amazon over the company’s facial recognition technology, and said his concerns still grow “day by day.”

This isn’t the first time Congress has looked into facial recognition and AI more broadly. Senators including Kamala Harris, Patty Murray, and Elizabeth Warren sent letters to federal agencies last year asking for more information on how facial recognition is used by the government and any oversight is in place.

Alexander, the former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said on the panel that there should be, at minimum, guidelines and training for how law enforcement use facial recognition.

“If you’re going to develop this technology, it’s going to have to meet a standard being articulated by the scientists and those in the legal community that are here,” he said. “If it can’t meet that standard, then there’s no place for it in our society.”