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San Francisco, the ‘Silicon Valley’ city where facial recognition technology has been developed, is one of the first cities to recognize the risk to city residents of false recognition and over-reliance on technology

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GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the police and other city institutions. The decision was taken by an eight to one majority and now awaits the mayor’s approval next month. Last week, however, an Amazon shareholder meeting rejected a proposal to ban facial recognition products from being sold to customers, including foreign states, which some say could abuse the technology. In a recent House Oversight and Reform Committee discussion, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posed questions on facial recognition technology to Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League. Here’s a clip of the exchange.
GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the use of facial recognition technology is Michael Kwet. Michael is a Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School and he is the author of Digital Colonialism: U.S. Empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South and hosts The Tech Empire on Yale University’s Podcast Network. Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

MICHAEL KWET Thank you for having me on.

GREG WILPERT So some critics of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ decision to ban facial recognition software say it is being soft on crime. Just how important would you say is facial recognition software for crime-fighting, or are there other interests– business interests, for example–behind the technology which are pushing its use unnecessarily?

MICHAEL KWET Well, I would say in response to critics that first of all, what they’re advocating they should call it by what it really is. If you’re looking at using facial recognition on CCTV networks and you have cameras all over your city, you are in effect creating a surveillance state. So if they want to make the case that this kind of technology is needed in order to deter crime, in order to have effective investigations after crimes occur, then I would say you’re advocating for a surveillance state. So please call it that and be honest about what it is that you’re saying should be done.

As far as the business interests go, yes, there are those like Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft who are pushing for the use of and sales of facial recognition software that they stand to make a lot of money from. Video analytics in general and facial recognition is becoming a big industry because there are an increasing amount of cameras all over cities, retail, all over the place. So they stand to make a lot of money from this and they certainly want to make sure that the gravy train accumulates to them. Also keep in mind that there are other companies in the background. Chicago and Detroit, for example, are contracting with a company called Data Works Plus, who are also making money out of facial recognition software. So there’s a little industry behind this as well.

GREG WILPERT So why should people who are not criminals be concerned about facial recognition technology? I mean, how can it be misused?

MICHAEL KWET Well, facial recognition technology could be used to profile all sorts of different kinds of people. For example, if you’re an activist or a protester, we’ve seen already that facial recognition technology has been used to try to track down and identify who some of those people are. That was something that occurred–the ACLU published about that, that occurred in Baltimore, and that was after the Freddie Gray protests. So you have protesters, you have religious minorities; the NYPD has profiled Muslims and there was a lot of controversy behind that and there were some lawsuits that were filed. So they were profiling Muslims at mosques. There are all sorts of different groups. Immigrants, for example, are another group that stands to be worried about being profiled for deportation.

So that’s really basically a civil rights issue for a lot of different people. It’s not that they necessarily committed a crime, it’s just that they’re being profiled. And we should expect this to occur because that’s what history has shown us time and time again. This goes back for a lot of people to the 60s, or police surveillance even before that into the earlier part of the century. And it’s been a major issue for a lot of different groups and that’s why I think you see a lot of LGBTQ, pro-immigrant groups, civil rights and liberties groups, activists all getting together and pushing back against this.

MICHAEL KWET Now, if San Francisco is banning its own police from using the technology but any private citizen can still order Amazon products with facial recognition capacity, aren’t we giving the power over this technology to private hands, which are not under regulation?

MICHAEL KWET Yes. And that’s a really important point about the ordinance. The ordinance doesn’t touch upon the private sector, so that means stores can still be using facial recognition technology. That means people can be installing things at their homes where people come up to their doorsteps and they can be potentially using these products there, which I think that should be something that’s heavily debated. But it could potentially push things into the direction of private security.

And if you look elsewhere in the world, one of the places I’ve done a lot of research is South Africa. They have a large private security industry and they’re putting up CCTV cameras all over the place. A company called Vumacam just did some pilot projects and then they recently launched an initiative to blanket Johannesburg in surveillance, and they’re a private company. So at the same time, there could be some initiatives towards increasing the use of CCTV surveillance and facial recognition in the private sector as well.

GREG WILPERT OK. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now, but hopefully come back to you soon as we see new developments in the area. I was speaking to Michael Kwet, Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Thanks again, Michael, for having joined us today.

MICHAEL KWET Thank you, Gregory.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Michael Kwet is a Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He is the author of Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South, and hosts the Tech Empire on Yale University’s podcast network. With a focus on education technology and digital colonialism, he received his PhD in Sociology from Rhodes University, South Africa.