Many fear misuse of facial recognition technology

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Mpls City Council approves restrictions

The Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance on February 12 restricting government use of facial recognition technology (FRT). The ordinance prohibits the procurement of the technology by all City departments, third-party contracts for access to FRT, and the use of data obtained from FRT by City staff.

However, this ordinance does not prohibit FRT from being used by private parties like Target Corporation who have been entrenched with law enforcement for decades.

According to a 2019 investigative report by the New York Times, FRT helped transform entire towns into prisons in Xinjiang, China, home to the Uighur Muslim minorities. In January, the U.S. State Department declared it genocide.

Expanding surveillance

In 1990, Northampton, England pioneered the world’s first public closed circuit television (CCTV) surveillance system to target “lifestyle offenders” and “terrorists.”

In 2004, Target Corporation and the City of Minneapolis collaborated to launch the new SafeZone surveillance system in downtown, modeled after Northampton. The SafeZone was a massive corporate donation of 30 surveillance cameras from Target to the City, which was the pilot program for its greater Safe City initiative.

The SafeZone cameras helped police track and evict “undesired elements” from downtown. That same year, a Target Corp. video forensics specialist used FRT to help catch and convict two juvenile arsonists in Houston. A year earlier, in 2003, Target opened two state-of-the-art forensics labs in Minneapolis and Las Vegas to prevent shoplifting. 

In 2011, Target helped convict Mahdi Hassan Ali for a triple homicide at the Seward Market in South Minneapolis. Ali was just 15 years old when the crime took place and has maintained his innocence. “He said there is video of him at the University of Minnesota Riverside Hospital that would prove his case,” according to Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality, who is in regular contact with Ali.

Target’s Safe City became internationally recognized for partnering with law enforcement around the globe. In 2006, the Washington Post wrote that Target was impacting “local, state, federal and international agencies.”

FRT and Chinese genocide

China’s technological advancements in FRT completely eliminated the need for humans to watch surveillance cameras, cutting costs substantially. By 2011, China unveiled its own massive surveillance program, also called “Safe Cities.”

Going back to 2013, American companies such as Northrop Grumman, General Electric and IBM worked with the Chinese Safe Cities program. Honeywell, formerly Minneapolis-based now headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., is also a “major vendor” according to market research firm Homeland Security Research.

China’s “Safe Cities” has been implicated in human rights violations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institute. Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, “China’s Algorithms of Oppression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App,” describes an application used by cops to collect sweeping data including driver’s license info, political affiliation, and blood type of the Uighur Muslims.

Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Chinese policy in Xinjiang a genocide for “crimes against humanity that include arbitrary imprisonment, forced sterilization, torture, forced labor and ‘draconian restrictions’ on freedom of religion, expression and movement.”

Xinjiang’s massive surveillance state was built after the Chinese government accused the Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), of committing sedition following “riots” in 2009.

According to proponents at a public hearing in Minneapolis, FRT, which has been linked to genocide in China, is said to be inevitable for the rest of us.

Oakland, Portland, Boston and San Francisco banned FRT prior to the Minneapolis ordinance. As long as cities rely on surveillance cameras to protect people, there will be a need to watch them. “Be wary of the loopholes in ordinances from other cities of private companies using FRT and then giving those results to the police,” warned one activist at the hearing in Minneapolis.

Advocating for FRT

Drake Jamali from the Security Industry Association spoke against a blanket ban on FRT. Jamali said FRT has “proven benefits in fighting identity fraud, thwarting malicious attacks against the public, solving hate crimes against the LGBTQ community, cracking cold cases, and rescuing over 15,000 children from human sex trafficking.”

FRT has long been used by private companies across the U.S., including social media apps. It’s helping catch rioters after the fact, including many who took part in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Councilmember Steve Fletcher (DFL) presented the ordinance to the public at the hearing. He cited an existing ordinance protecting residents’ privacy data that states: “We do not collect data unless there is a reason to do so.”

Council Vice-President Andrea Jenkins (DFL) said, “We’re being surveilled at this very moment… Surveillance technology is a part of our world. We must regulate it to make sure that everybody is being treated equitably.” She advocated for all people to be equally targeted and surveilled.

Most opposed

Amnesty International, who endorsed the ordinance, spoke against FRT. An activist with the group said, “Imagine Bob Kroll coming to power and getting his hands on this,” referring to the former Minneapolis Police Federation president.

“There is a need to protect all Americans from this discriminatory technology,” the activist continued. “Not simply how the algorithms work, but against whom these tools are targeting. We have to recognize the fact that police surveillance has systematically been targeted at communities of color for so many generations. That is how it will continue to be targeted in the months and years ahead. Any exception that ever allows facial recognition to be used will be exploited systematically to perpetuate these forms of injustice and inequality.”

The overwhelming sentiment at  the public hearing was that FRT will be weaponized  and used against Black people and is the last thing the City of Minneapolis should be considering, especially in light of last year’s police killing of George Floyd that sparked global protests.

Opponents pointed out that without strong legislation prohibiting the public and private use of FRT at state and national levels, an authoritarian future seems inevitable.

“I support this ban at this time because the technology is just not ready,” said Jenkins, citing concerns about disparities in recognizing dark skin.

As one of the activists at the hearing pointed out, one day soon someone will create an updated version that works perfectly on Black skin. “Look no further than China, where FRT is working well to achieve its means. Will the council support it then, paving the way from Jim Crow to genocide?” they said.

Marjaan Sirdar welcomes reader responses to