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ACLU sues US government to expose use of facial-recognition technology

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against US government bodies in an effort to expose information about how government agencies use facial-recognition technology.

Separate lawsuits have been filed by the ACLU and its Massachusetts branch against the US Department of Justice, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

In January, the ACLU filed a freedom of information request to the same three government bodies, seeking information about their use of biometric data for surveillance, including using facial recognition. However, the ACLU reports in its complaint that it did not receive any response to its requests.

After its requests were met with silence, the ACLU hopes that filing the lawsuit will help expose records of how law enforcement agencies are collecting and using biometric data, including for surveillance purposes.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, accessing the records is vital for helping the public understand how the government is using these “invasive” technologies. The civil liberties group states that it hopes to: “Understand and inform the public about, among other things, how face recognition and other biometric identification technologies are currently being used by the government and what, if any, safeguards are currently in place to prevent their abuse and protect core constitutional rights.”

In a blog post about the lawsuit, the ACLU said that the FBI was collecting extensive biometric data, including faces, irises, gait and voices. This permits government agencies to “identify, track and monitor us”. It commented that the secretive nature of this work meant that the public was being kept in the dark about how their biometric data could be used to “supercharge” surveillance activities.

“The public has a right to know when, where and how law enforcement agencies are using face-recognition technology and what safeguards, if any, are in place to protect our rights,” said Kade Crockford, a director of ACLU’s Massachusetts branch. “This dystopian surveillance technology threatens to fundamentally alter our free society into one where we’re treated as suspects to be tracked and monitored by the government 24/7.”

Experimentation with facial-recognition technology by law enforcement in the US and UK has drawn condemnation from civil liberties groups, citing concerns about its low accuracy (particularly with regard to ethnic minorities and women) and privacy implications. Lawmakers and regulators have been engaged in discussion about how facial-recognition technology could be deployed responsibly and usefully, if at all. In June, Axon – the law-enforcement technology company – announced that it would not be incorporating facial recognition into its body cameras for the foreseeable future, following the advice of its ethics board.

A small handful of local authorities in the US have banned use of facial recognition by government agencies, including San Francisco, while Californian lawmakers have passed a bill pausing use of facial recognition for three years.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office this week warned the police against liberal use of the technology, stating that the absence of a statutory code addressing the controversial technology could seriously undermine public confidence and raised “serious concerns”.

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