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ACM Calls for Suspension of Facial Recognition Use

As both houses of Congress consider bills that would ban the use of facial recognition software by federal agencies, a key group of computer engineers and scientists is calling for an immediate suspension on the use of the technology until regulation is in place.

Citing the problems with accuracy and the issues of racial and gender bias that have surfaced with facial recognition systems, the Association for Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee on Tuesday issued a statement that says those systems should not be used in private or government applications in the absence of meaningful regulation.

“For both technical and ethical reasons – pending the adoption of appropriately comprehensive law and regulation to govern its use, oversee its application, and mitigate potential harm – USTPC urges an immediate suspension of the current and future private and governmental use of FR technologies in all circumstances known or reasonably foreseeable to be prejudicial to established human and legal rights,” the statement says.

The ACM is among the oldest computing professional societies in the world and the announcement of its committee’s position on facial recognition comes as sentiment in Washington and the technology industry to regulate or outright ban the use of the technology is building. Last week, a bill was introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to prohibit federal entities from using facial recognition, and withhold some federal funds from state and local agencies that use it. Like the ACM, the sponsors of those bills referenced the biases and inaccuracies of the systems, along with the ethical questions of deploying them without notice, as driving the need for the legislation.

“Facial recognition technology is fundamentally flawed, systemically biased, and has no place in our society,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), one of the sponsors of the bill. “Black and brown people are already over-surveilled and over-policed, and it’s critical that we prevent government agencies from using this faulty technology to surveil communities of color even further. This bill would boldly affirm the civil liberties of every person in this country and protect their right to live free of unjust and discriminatory surveillance by government and law enforcement.”

Facial recognition systems have been in use in various environments for many years, especially in high-security settings such as airports, banks, and military bases, but its use in public spaces has increased dramatically recently. Often, people in those spaces are unaware that facial recognition is in use and there is little or no transparency about how or when the images from the systems will be used. The inaccuracy of facial recognition systems and their tendency to misidentify women and people of color has generated considerable opposition to their use by law enforcement, and the ACM’s statement calls for restrictions on facial recognition deployments by private organizations, as well.

“Though powerful today and likely to improve in the future, FR technology is not sufficiently mature and reliable to be safely and fairly utilized without appropriate safeguards against adversely impacting individuals, particularly those in vulnerable population,” the statement says.

“Their potential to help meet significant societal needs, as well as political and marketplace forces, have driven the adoption of FR systems by government and industry ahead of the development of principles and regulations to reliably assure their consistently appropriate and non-prejudicial use.”

The questioning of facial recognition is not coming just from lawmakers, policy groups, and privacy advocates, but also from some of the makers of the technology. Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM all have said recently that they will not sell their facial recognition systems to law enforcement for the time being.