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The U.S. can’t rebuke global tyranny when our companies sell tools that enable it

American companies are exporting facial recognition around the world and profiting from its use at home—making it hypocritical for the U.S. to denounce surveillance states abroad.

The U.S. can’t rebuke global tyranny when our companies sell tools that enable it
[Source images: GDJ/Pixabay; geralt/Pixabay]

What does America stand for? Today, the answer has never been less clear. For four years, America’s already dubious human rights record was reduced to ash by an administration that held the very concept of human rights in contempt. Now, many are calling for an expanded U.S. presence on a world stage, creating a bright line between the American government and authoritarian regimes abroad. But how can America take a stand against global tyranny when we’re selling the tools that enable it?

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Government facial recognition is quickly becoming the defining technology of authoritarianism, automating the mass surveillance of political movements and religious and ethnic minorities. In China, facial recognition facilitated the imprisonment of more than a million Uighurs. Here, in the U.S., that same technology is automating the wrongful arrest of untold numbers of Americans, more specifically, Black Americans. But Silicon Valley startups aren’t just selling surveillance at home, they’re also peddling it abroad.

Amazon shareholders and civil society groups have denounced the tech giant for selling its software to authoritarian regimes. But it’s not just the Fortune 500 firms that have come under scrutiny. Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition startup, has been widely condemned for selling services to 2,200 law enforcement agencies across 27 countries, while actively marketing in Europe, South America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East.

As we carve out a post-Trump national identity, we can’t ignore how our own companies and police profit from and propagate the technologies of mass surveillance. We can’t claim to be a beacon to the world while turning Americans’ faces into beacons for the police. We can’t claim to leave the sins of the prior administration behind when police are still using racist technology to arrest Americans of color.

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Facial recognition has been repeatedly shown to discriminate against people of color, particularly darker-skinned Black women. Not only is the algorithm often flawed, but many police departments only run facial recognition against a set of potential suspects that is overwhelmingly Black or Latin/x, further exacerbating discrimination.

Today, facial recognition puts millions of Americans at risk for false arrest for the color of their skin. It gives police unchecked power to track our neighbors for their political and religious beliefs. It chills the defining values and liberties of our First Amendment, undermining our democracy itself. And yet we still want to be the “good guys,” the moral standard bearers for the global civil rights discourse.

American tech firms have long been leading promoters of this Orwellian tool. We often hold up China as the exemplar of dystopian surveillance, and it’s true that more than 100 Chinese cities purchased facial recognition systems in 2019. But American companies and governments seem dead set on trying to keep up. The technology is already a billion dollar business in North America, with the United States representing the lion share. And projections from Grand View Research show facial recognition will continue to expand every year, nearly doubling by 2027.

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The numbers of face searches we see as a result is staggering. Take New York, where NYPD facial recognition has consistently increased year-over-year. This has led to more than 22,000 searches in the last three years, and 9,850 just during 2019. And those numbers don’t even include the more than 11,000 unauthorized searches by NYPD officers on private facial recognition platforms. How can we denounce the authoritarian surveillance of Beijing when we use the same tools in Brooklyn?

How can we denounce the authoritarian surveillance of Beijing when we use the same tools in Brooklyn?

And the dangers of facial recognition aren’t just limited to police. Increasingly, American companies, particularly chain retailers like Rite Aid, have adopted private facial recognition systems. But these systems are innately tied to the criminal justice system, fueling the surveillance-to-prison pipeline. Stores aren’t using facial recognition to reward customers for their loyalty—they use the system to automate calls to the police over shoplifting and other offenses. Having the local supermarket use facial recognition may feel more innocuous than when it’s the police, but the results can often be the same: people of color being arrested because of biased facial recognition algorithms.

This hypocrisy is par for the course in our history. For as long as our nation as existed, we have claimed to be an exemplar to the world of the freedoms we fail to uphold at home. When George Washington wrote of America as a “a free, enlightened, and…great nation,” millions were still in bondage. When President Truman ushered in the Cold War with his call to support “free peoples” against oppression, Jim Crow was still in full effect. Now, as our leaders decry the very real oppression of the Chinese surveillance state, many want to ignore the same technologies at home.

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There aren’t any easy solutions for the new administration. Given our federal system, there are limits to how much the President can do to address these abuses through executive order or even legislation. But the White House can give us moral leadership, supporting the state and local efforts to outlaw facial recognition. And we’ve seen that this model can work, with more than dozen facial recognition bans across the country, including Boston, San Francisco, and both Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. And importantly, there are already skeptics of facial recognition in the administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

Already, we see this hybrid model being used by civil society groups. One example came last week when Amnesty International partnered with local New York activists (including myself) to introduce a global campaign against facial recognition called Ban The Scan. Working with a cohort of partners in New Delhi and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, we can bring international pressure to bear on these local political fights. This solidarity is important, but it would be more powerful if President Biden and his Administration were to do the same, standing with local activists fighting for facial recognition bans and other police reforms. That’s the sort of leadership that could help show the world that America truly has standing in the global human rights discourse, rather than just repeating the hypocrisy of the past.


Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law.

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