Evan Greer of Fight for the Future discusses how giving ICE access to the DMV databases of driver’s license photos poses universal risks. Facial recognition technology is risky, unreliable, and has the potential to cause mass false arrests, violating the rights of refugees, immigrants, and citizens alike

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.

It came to light this week because of a report from Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology that ICE has been using facial recognition technology. That’s not too surprising to most of us. But more insidiously, they have mined databases of driver’s licenses from across the nation, often without the approval or agreement of those agencies. NPR, CBS, and others have reported these stories, and in the hearing in Congress raised some serious questions. This is from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

CONGRESSWOMAN ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ Amazon actually met with ICE officials over facial-recognition system that could identify immigrants. I’d like to submit this to the congressional record.


CONGRESSWOMAN ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ Do you think I’s fair to say that Americans are essentially being spied on and surveilled on a massive scale without their consent or knowledge?

CLARE GARVIE, GEORGETOWN I will say most of the law enforcement agency systems operate on DMV databases or mugshot databases, so information that has been collected by agencies rather than companies.

CONGRESSWOMAN ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ Do you think this could exacerbate the already egregious inequalities in our criminal justice system?

JOY BUOLAMWINI, MIT It already is.

MARC STEINER Now, there’s a lot of debate about how reliable facial recognition technology really is. A new report by The Independent showed that misidentification can reach 98 percent of cases in some cases. It’s clear that facial recognition technology is also highly racially biased. It is biased because it’s based on white men and their faces. The consequence is that People of Color will have an enormously higher rate of misidentification. And then there’s the looming question of who controls this technology and how you control the government’s and private businesses’ use of it. What about the future of our privacy, which is the great question of 1984?

And we are joined today by someone to help us parse through all of this and figure out what’s going on. Evan Greer is a queer activist, a singer-songwriter, an organizer, parent, speaker, and workshop facilitator based in Boston; writes for many media venues and is Deputy Director of Fight for the Future. And Evan, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

EVAN GREER Thanks so much for having me on.

MARC STEINER So let’s start with what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was talking about when she looked at the question of Amazon and Facebook and their relationship with the government and how they use it, given their technology gurus; and Google as well; and the question of invasion of privacy that she was raising. So let’s start there, which is where I ended the opening. But I think it’s a really critical question about where we go for the future.

EVAN GREER We’re in a moment where the surveillance state, the kind of dystopian 1984 scenario that you mentioned, is being built in plain sight right in front of our eyes through partnerships between private corporations and the government. And I think that’s what’s really important to understand here. There’s two different entities here that both have a vested interest in spreading this type of incredibly invasive surveillance technology. There’s the companies that want to make a ton of money doing it, and then there’s government agencies that are just constantly hungry for more power, more data, and more ability to watch all of us all the time.

MARC STEINER So talk about what may be dangerous with all this. I mean, we’ve lived in a world where we’ve had biometric technology for a while identifying whether a person’s face matches a photo ID, used by many countries around the globe. But they have all these databases, and state governments and federal governments and others can mine these databases, they say for suspects for crime. But there’s something really also dangerous about maintaining these databases. The question is what you just said, that this is hiding in plain sight. So what is it that we do? How do we address the issue of control? How do we address the issue of how this technology is used? Because it’s out there, it’s not going anywhere. It’s here.

EVAN GREER So I think this is absolutely the question that we need to be talking about. And it’s important that we have the real debate about whether ubiquitous facial recognition surveillance, biometric surveillance, has any role in a free and open society. The tech industry would like to skip ahead. They’re proactively calling for “regulation” because they want to skip that debate and get right to: “How do we roll this out and start making money off of it? Sure, we’ll put some restrictions in place to assuage people’s fears, but let’s get to making money off of this.” They want to skip the debate about whether this technology should even exist in law enforcement’s hands or in the government’s hands in the first place.

Now, in terms of the dangers, I think it’s really important because a lot of the criticism or discussion around facial recognition has focused on the ways that it’s inaccurate. And that’s important, because those inaccuracies–especially in the ways that they’re encoded to be racially biased, to have bias against people who are not white men–those biases have real world consequences. They’re going to lead to additional police harassment, incarceration, and potentially even violence against the people that are already being discriminated against by our criminal justice system.

So those are real concerns, but I think it’s important to recognize that even if this technology worked 100 percent of the time, it was 100 percent accurate, it would still pose a profound threat to the future of human society and basic rights. None of us want to live in a world where we can be constantly watched by the government everywhere that we go, everyone that we associate with, and complete profiles built of us of our religious beliefs, political beliefs, and activities. That’s a world with no freedom, not just no privacy.

MARC STEINER A couple of quick questions in the short time we have together today. One of them has to do with what I said earlier. This technology is there. I mean, once technology exists, you just can’t throw it away and turn it off, because it exists. It’s part of our world. So the question is, how do you control it? I mean, what has to be done in order for it to be controlled? That’s the issue. And it seems like the Congress isn’t really wrestling with this in a deep way in terms of law and of control. You see enforcement agencies coming in, not wanting to talk about how they use it because it will affect their ability to fight crime, they say. And so, there’s a lot of issues here. The question is, I’m curious what kind of push in organizing and conversations you are having with those who actually make the laws that can protect us while the technology is in existence.

EVAN GREER Absolutely. So there’s actually a hearing happening literally right now in the House Homeland Security Committee, where House lawmakers–a number of them–have really been grilling these DHS officials about the ways that the U.S. government is using this. We’re in a really important moment right now because there is a tremendous threat. You’re absolutely right that this technology is spreading very quickly. But there’s also backlash to this technology spreading very quickly. San Francisco just became the first city in the country to ban government use of facial recognition technology; Somerville, Massachusetts just filed a suit; a number of other cities are considering similar bans. So this is a situation where there is momentum to limit or ban this technology.

And that’s why my organization, Fight for the Future, just became one of the first national groups to call for a complete, all-out ban on law enforcement and government use of facial recognition surveillance. We launched that campaign yesterday. It got a tremendous amount of press and interest from across the Internet, and we do think that Congress is starting to listen. This is one of those rare moments where–I mean, we mentioned AOC at the beginning of the show. AOC and Jim Jordan agree on this. This is something that cuts across the political divide and something that I think everyone can understand. There’s something visceral about the idea of having your face scanned and stored in a government database that I think helps inspire people to take action.

So I encourage people to contact their members of Congress and their local officials and tell them, “Don’t regulate this technology, ban it.” This is on the short list of technologies like biological weapons or nuclear weapons that simply shouldn’t be in law enforcement’s hands. And Congress has the authority to do that. There’s a reason your local police department doesn’t have Stinger missiles. Congress can limit what local law enforcement has access to, and they should.

MARC STEINER That’s a whole conversation in itself, how do you ban things that are already in existence? We’ll save that for another day because I think that’s a really important question to wrestle with. And what about the issue of how ICE seems to be using this with local databases? A lot of states now allow undocumented people to have licenses, and so they’re using that to tap into these databases to find people to grab and deport and more. And then, when you have people like Congressman Brian King from Utah, who said via Twitter “It is not OK that the Utah state DMV officials turned over data to ICE to help set up a surveillance system. I’ll be joining with legislative colleagues to get answers about how this happened. I’m sure our concerns will be bipartisan.” So this is part of, I think, what kind of unleashed this, was this Georgetown report that talked about how ICE is using this technology, which I think is what made this explode in a much larger way. And this is very real, tapping into DMV databases, not often with the agreement of the local governments.

EVAN GREER That’s right. And also with absolutely no warrants, no real procedures that protect people’s data. I mean, when you go and get your photo taken to get a driver’s license, you’re not proactively consenting to having your photo stored in a database that can be used for ubiquitous dragnet surveillance. You don’t sign anything that says that that’s what you’re signing up for. And in this case, it’s really particularly nauseating. Because as you mentioned, ICE was conducting these searches on DMV databases in states where undocumented people are legally allowed to get driver’s licenses. So people fought really hard for this basic right, because having a driver’s license is often essential for being able to participate meaningfully in our society and in the economy and have a job and drop your kids off and all those basic things that people often do.

 And people went and signed up for those driver’s licenses with the assumption or being told that it would be safe for them to do so, and now the federal government is conducting dragnet surveillance of those databases and targeting undocumented people who were doing nothing wrong; who just went and got a driver’s license like anyone else. So it really is a profound bait and switch, and just illuminates how once this technology continues to spread as it becomes used more and more frequently by law enforcement. There’s so much information out there. There’s so many other databases out there, including ones held by private companies. Amazon is collecting a tremendous amount of information through its Ring Doorbells, Facebook is obviously–you know, we’re all willingly uploading our photos to Facebook. These are huge datasets that absolutely will be exploited and used for surveillance if there aren’t limitations put in place, and frankly, if we don’t outright prevent our law enforcement agencies from using this type of surveillance.

MARC STEINER We’re almost looking at a situation where this is–at the turn of the last century you had this breakup of trusts because they were controlling America. This is like a combination of breaking up the trusts and the dangers of government kind of doing as they will with our identities without any control. And those two things are being blended, which is where I think the real danger is, which one of the reasons probably–when you said that you’re comparing this to biological nuclear weapons, that was what you said, I think, in the interview you had with Common Dreams. And so, we’re at a precipice. And I know you’re not prescient, but talk just for a second before we go about where you think this is going to take us, where the movement to stop this and control this will be going.

EVAN GREER I think that this is going to be one of the fundamental issues of our generation. And I think that we need to think about it with the level of seriousness that we think about nuclear or biological weapons. Imagine that we could go back in time a couple years before humans ever developed the first weapons of that scale and we could prevent it. I think most of the folks out there watching would do so. That’s the moment that we’re in right now with facial recognition, and that’s why we need to mobilize and organize to get limitations and bans put in place in as many cities and states as possible, and then leverage that momentum to build bipartisan support for a full-on ban of all government and law enforcement use of facial recognition in Congress.

MARC STEINER Well, I think that this probably lends itself for us to kind of produce together a very large discussion and debate. It’s a huge issue, and there are lots of sides to this and we need to really get into that. And I think that it’s really important for our future and our freedoms and where we’re going. Evan Greer, thank you so much for your work and thank you for joining us today on The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Have a good day.

EVAN GREER Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Marc, and you too.

MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.

Marc Steiner

Managing Editor

Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.