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Facial recognition is real-life ‘Black Mirror’ stuff, Ocasio-Cortez says – Naked Security


During a House hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that the spread of surveillance via ubiquitous facial recognition is like something out of the tech dystopia TV show “Black Mirror.”

This is some real-life “Black Mirror” stuff that we’re seeing here.

Call this episode “Surveil Them While They’re Obliviously Playing With Puppy Dog Filters.”

Wednesday’s was the third hearing on the topic for the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is working on legislation to address concerns about the increasingly pervasive technology. In Wednesday’s hearing, Ocasio-Cortez called out the technology’s hidden dangers – one of which is that people don’t really understand how widespread it is.

At one point, Ocasio-Cortez asked Meredith Whittaker – co-founder and co-director of New York University’s AI Now Institute, who had noted in the hearing that facial recognition is a potential tool of authoritarian regimes – to remind the committee of some of the common ways that companies collect our facial recognition data.

Whittaker responded with a laundry list: she said that companies scrape our biometric data from sites like Flickr, from Wikipedia, and from “massive networked market reach” such as that of Facebook.

Ocasio-Cortez: So if you’ve ever posted a photo of yourself to Facebook, then that could be used in a facial recognition database?

Whittaker: Absolutely – by Facebook and potentially others.

Ocasio-Cortez: Could using a Snapchat or Instagram filter help hone an algorithm for facial recognition?

Whittaker: Absolutely.

Ocasio-Cortez: Can surveillance camera footage that you don’t even know is being taken of you be used for facial recognition?

Whittaker: Yes, and cameras are being designed for that purpose now.

This is a problem, the New York representative suggested:

People think they’re going to put on a cute filter and have puppy dog ears, and not realize that that data’s being collected by a corporation or the state, depending on what country you’re in, in order to …surveil you, potentially for the rest of your life.

Whittaker’s response: Yes. And no, average consumers aren’t aware of how companies are collecting and storing their facial recognition data.

It’s “Black and brown Americans” who suffer the most from the ubiquity of this error-prone technology, Ocasio-Cortez said, bringing up a point from a previous hearing in May 2019: that the technology has the highest error rates for non-Caucasians.

Problems in facial recognition technology

At the May 2019 hearing, Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) – a nonprofit that works to illuminate the social implications and harms of artificial intelligence (AI) – had testified about how failures of facial analysis technologies have had “real and dire consequences” for people’s lives, including in critical areas such as law enforcement, housing, employment, and access to government services.

Buolamwini founded the AJL after experiencing such failure firsthand, when facial analysis software failed to detect her dark-skinned face until she put on a white mask. Such failures have been attributed to the lack of diversity within the population of engineers who create facial analysis algorithms. In other words, facial recognition achieves its highest accuracy rate when used with white male faces.

Here’s Buolamwini in the May hearing:

If you have a case where we’re thinking about putting, let’s say, facial recognition technology on police body cams, in a situation where you already have racial bias, that can be used to confirm [such bias].

In Wednesday’s hearing, Ocasio-Cortez said that the worst implications are that a computer algorithm will suggest that a Black person has likely committed a crime when they are, in fact, innocent.

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