The glaring hypocrisy of the American surveillance state

Authorities facial recognition is shortly changing into the defining expertise 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. Right here, in the U.S., that very same expertise is automating the wrongful arrest of untold numbers of People, extra particularly, Black Americans. However Silicon Valley startups aren’t simply promoting surveillance at house, they’re additionally peddling it overseas.

Amazon shareholders and civil society groups have denounced the tech big for promoting its software program to authoritarian regimes. However it’s not simply the Fortune 500 companies which have come beneath scrutiny. Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition startup, has been broadly condemned for promoting companies to 2,200 legislation enforcement businesses throughout 27 nations, whereas actively advertising in Europe, South America, Asia Pacific, and the Center East.

As we carve out a post-Trump nationwide id, we are able to’t ignore how our personal corporations and police revenue from and propagate the applied sciences of mass surveillance. We are able to’t declare to be a beacon to the world whereas turning People’ faces into beacons for the police. We are able to’t declare to depart the sins of the prior administration behind when police are nonetheless utilizing racist expertise to arrest People of colour.


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

Right this moment, facial recognition places hundreds of thousands of People in danger for false arrest for the colour of their pores and skin. It provides police unchecked energy to trace our neighbors for his or her political and non secular beliefs. It chills the defining values and liberties of our First Modification, undermining our democracy itself. And but we nonetheless need to be the “good guys,” the ethical normal bearers for the world civil rights discourse.

American tech firms have long been leading promoters of this Orwellian tool. We frequently maintain up China as the exemplar of dystopian surveillance, and it’s true that more than 100 Chinese cities purchased facial recognition systems in 2019. However American corporations and governments appear lifeless set on attempting to maintain up. The expertise is already a billion dollar business in North America, with the United States representing the lion share. And projections from Grand View Analysis present facial recognition will proceed to broaden yearly, nearly doubling by 2027.

The numbers of face searches we see consequently is staggering. Take New York, the place NYPD facial recognition has constantly elevated year-over-year. This has led to greater than 22,000 searches in the final three years, and 9,850 simply throughout 2019. And people numbers don’t even embrace the more than 11,000 unauthorized searches by NYPD officers on non-public facial recognition platforms. How can we denounce the authoritarian surveillance of Beijing after we use the identical instruments in Brooklyn?

How can we denounce the authoritarian surveillance of Beijing after we use the identical instruments in Brooklyn?

And the risks of facial recognition aren’t simply restricted to police. More and more, American corporations, particularly chain retailers like Rite Aid, have adopted non-public facial recognition programs. However these programs are innately tied to the felony justice system, fueling the surveillance-to-prison pipeline. Shops aren’t utilizing facial recognition to reward clients for his or her loyalty—they use the system to automate calls to the police over shoplifting and different offenses. Having the native grocery store use facial recognition could really feel extra innocuous than when it’s the police, however the outcomes can typically be the identical: folks of colour being arrested as a result of of biased facial recognition algorithms.

This hypocrisy is par for the course in our historical past. For so long as our nation as existed, we have now claimed to be an exemplar to the world of the freedoms we fail to uphold at house. When George Washington wrote of America as a “a free, enlightened, and…nice nation,” hundreds of thousands had been nonetheless in bondage. When President Truman ushered in the Chilly Warfare together with his name to help “free peoples” towards oppression, Jim Crow was nonetheless in full impact. Now, as our leaders decry the very actual oppression of the Chinese language surveillance state, many need to ignore the identical applied sciences at house.

There aren’t any simple options for the new administration. Given our federal system, there are limits to how a lot the President can do to handle these abuses via govt order and even laws. However the White Home can provide us ethical management, supporting the state and native efforts to outlaw facial recognition. And we’ve seen that this mannequin can work, with more than dozen facial recognition bans across the country, together with Boston, San Francisco, and each 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 mannequin being utilized by civil society teams. One instance got here final week when Amnesty Worldwide partnered with native New York activists (together with myself) to introduce a world marketing campaign towards facial recognition referred to as Ban The Scan. Working with a cohort of companions in New Delhi and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, we are able to deliver worldwide stress to bear on these native political fights. This solidarity is necessary, however it could be extra highly effective if President Biden and his Administration had been to do the identical, standing with native activists preventing for facial recognition bans and different police reforms. That’s the type of management that would assist present the world that America really has standing in the world human rights discourse, reasonably than simply repeating the hypocrisy of the previous.

Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and govt director of the Surveillance Expertise Oversight Mission (S.T.O.P.) at the City Justice Middle, a New York-based civil rights and privateness group and a fellow at the Engelberg Middle for Innovation Regulation & Coverage at N.Y.U. College of Regulation.