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Evan Greer: facial recognition is a uniquely dangerous form of surveillance

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Companies and governments are eager to get a hold of our sensitive biometric data, and we are not making it any harder for them to obtain our personal information that can be further commodified or used to spy on us.

People are actively participating in building a surveillance network by purchasing smart devices, such as smart door locks, bells, or washing machines. Therefore, spying upon us becomes much easier both for private corporations and governmental institutions.

“If we are surrounding ourselves with devices that are watching and listening to us, we are essentially laying the ground for a future police state,” Evan Greer, Deputy Director at Fight for the Future, told CyberNews.

She encourages people to go to protests and express their opinions, and has some advice on how to do that safely.

Facial recognition, when used by law enforcement, is essentially the eradication of human privacy, fundamental liberty and ability to speak up safely. It creates a situation where the more necessary the protest becomes, the more dangerous it becomes. That’s an untenable situation in the world if we are going to have basic levels of democracy, human rights, and freedom across the globe,

says Evan Greer.
Facial Recognition: Uniquely Dangerous Form of Surveillance
video screenshot

What do you think about the use of facial recognition? It seems dangerous, as it’s used to crack down on protests, and it’s also not accurate, especially when it comes to people of color.

Facial recognition is a uniquely dangerous form of surveillance. Surveillance has a profoundly chilling effect on people’s ability to speak up, to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. Facial recognition makes it almost impossible to make it anonymously.

The right to show up to a protest, to make your voice heard without having your face scanned or details cataloged, should be a fundamental human right in any country that claims to be a democracy. But these latest arrests that we’ve seen in the US... Certainly, other governments have been deploying this technology as well. Facial recognition, when used by law enforcement, is essentially the eradication of human privacy, fundamental liberty and ability to speak up safely. It creates a situation where the more necessary the protest becomes, the more dangerous it becomes. That’s an untenable situation in the world if we are going to have basic levels of democracy, human rights, and freedom across the globe.

Read more: From BLM to the Belarus Revolution – why is facial recognition so scary?

From BLM to the Belarus Revolution - why is facial recognition so scary?
Black lives matter international activist movement protesting against racism and fighting for justice - Demonstrators from different cultures and race protest on street for equal rights

Why isn’t facial recognition banned in Western countries? Is it because law enforcement uses it? Or is it because facial recognition technology vendors have strong and powerful lobbyists?

The US certainly right now, but also historically, should be seen as an authoritarian country broadly with a government that has exhibited authoritarian impulses throughout history. There’s a two-pronged fight that we are fighting globally around facial recognition right now. One is with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, who want to use this technology to track people, to monitor them, to suppress protests and uprisings, but also to target immigrant communities, minority communities, white and brown communities who are disproportionately impacted by this technology.

The second prong is with corporations who stand to make a lot of money by selling this technology not only to law enforcement, but they are trying to push it to all kinds of things –  from taking attendance in schools to entry and exit to events, using it for all kinds of other commercial purposes.

I would argue that the commercial spread of facial recognition is just as dangerous. There are profoundly discriminatory and abusive ways that private companies can use this technology that put people’s lives at risk, which puts people in danger or subject them to discrimination. So we need to be looking into this in a comprehensive way, just banning government or law enforcement use of facial recognition would certainly prevent a lot of the worst harms that can come from this technology, but it would be leaving us vulnerable to profound levels of abuse from private corporations who can also use this technology in deeply troubling ways.

Do you see any ideological purpose behind all of this? Maybe governments around the world have a goal to make people used to being spied on?

One of my biggest concerns is the spread of certain types of commercial facial recognition. Some of it seems innocuous, like "Oh I can go buy a burrito, I forgot my credit card but I can just get my face scanned, and pay for it that way."

It normalizes the process of handing over our sensitive biometric information to private companies. There are no essential laws in place that govern what they can do with the data they collect. They can sell it to another company, or they can hand it over to the government.

"I can get my face scanned to get on an airplane, or I get my face scanned to buy food" normalizes the type of surveillance that has a profoundly corrosive effect on society and basic human liberty, and human existence, I would argue. We need to resist that normalization just as much as we need to resist the spread of the technology itself.

As I understand, sometimes institutions don’t even ask for consent and track people anyway. To name an example, Albion college in Michigan demanded every student install a tracking app so that it could track the whereabouts of its students for COVID-19 prevention.

That is just the tip of an iceberg. We are going to see more of that. We are already seeing facial recognition companies and other tech surveillance vendors blatantly exploiting the tragedy of the crisis of COVID-19 pandemic to push their technology. It’s particularly troubling. This essentially amounts to unethical experimentation on children, and we have no idea what the long term psychological effects of being under that type of surveillance at those formative years in your life are. Rising surveillance is a crisis for our society, it's a crisis for human rights. And it’s time to start asking ourselves what kind of world we want our children to grow up in.

Read more: How encrypted messaging changed the way we protest

Group of people wearing face mask
How encrypted messaging changed the way we protest

Besides the devices that can spy on us, such as phones and computers, what are other home appliances around us that are dangerous? Are we safe from being spied on in our home environment?

A device that is connected and collects any kind of data is essentially a surveillance device and can be used to collect data about you. It might reveal more than you can expect even if it’s just basic habits like when you are at home and when you are not, when you sleep, how often you go to the bathroom. Things like that are private information that no one besides you need to know. The more we plug in our lives, the more smart things we have at our homes, whether it's a smart refrigerator or a doorbell, the more data is being collected about us and stored.

In the end, you are trusting those companies to protect that data, and we’ve seen time and time again that there’s just no reason to trust that companies will do a good job protecting this information. Even companies that have invested in a security, and do take the biggest precautions that they can, still end up getting breached because it’s almost impossible to have 100% security on any kind of system that scales.

You are trusting those companies to protect that data, and we’ve seen time and time again that there’s just no reason to trust that companies will do a good job protecting this information,

says Evan Greer.

When my friends come to me and say “Hey, you are tech-savvy, should I get one of these ring doorbells or a smart lock on my door,” I strongly encourage to use the good old-fashioned lock on the door that is safer than an internet-connected door lock. Using a good door lock will protect your family more than a front door camera that can reveal a lot of details and information about your family without your knowledge or consent.

We often think of surveillance as something that’s imposed on us by an autocratic government but in many ways, we are becoming willing participants, we are purchasing the surveillance devices that will be used to monitor us in the future. If we are surrounding ourselves with devices that are watching and listening to us, we are essentially laying the ground for a future police state. And it’s a matter of flipping a switch to turn devices that are made for convenience or safety into devices that can be used for surveillance.

Do you have any other advice for people who want to attend protests? How to stay safe while speaking up?

The first thing I would say - don’t stop protesting. The whole purpose of surveillance is to make us feel afraid to go out in the streets and make our voices heard. If we allow that to control us, we are almost surrendering not only to the surveillance but to the injustice and corruption that fuels it. That said, there are practical steps that you can take to protect yourself. Certainly, we should all be wearing masks anyway right now for public health reasons. Facial recognition vendors will likely be able to catch up and conduct facial recognition even with masks on but it would be foolish to not assume that you are less likely to be caught up through a surveillance camera if you are covering your face.

Facial recognition is a relatively new addition to the arsenal of law enforcement. For many years already they have access to things like tracking cell phone location data.

Don’t stop protesting. The whole purpose of surveillance is to make us feel afraid to go out in the streets and make our voices heard. If we allow that to control us, we are almost surrendering not only to the surveillance but to the injustice and corruption that fuels it,

says Evan Greer.

There are great guides online for protestors. We are often taught to believe that there’s nothing we can do, or that the government is all-seeing and all-knowing, and we just have to accept that. But the reality is there are simple things that you can do. You don’t have to be a tech expert to make yourself, your family, and your community safer. You can do it by just putting a good password on your phone, using an encrypted messaging app like Signal or WhatsApp instead of regular SMS, not using your thumbprint or face ID on your phone, because a police officer or someone else could force you to unlock your phone.

Just taking those three steps makes you exponentially safer than you would if you didn’t take those steps. We need to approach surveillance self-defense as harm reduction as opposed to the "all or nothing" approach. A lot of people feel like it’s "all or nothing," and they will never be able to do all the things. So they do nothing.

Read more: Facial recognition cameras in schools erode privacy and normalize surveillance

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