In the battle against the coronavirus, the Chinese government’s high-tech response seemed like something out of a science fiction novel. Robots disinfected hospitals, police wore thermo-sensitive goggles to detect fevers, and opaque algorithms determined who could leave home or ride the bus.
In a society already accustomed to widespread surveillance, investment into facial recognition technologies is booming as companies rush to develop new tools to monitor infected individuals. The Chinese government claims that the heightened surveillance is temporary, but human rights advocates predict that this will become the new status quo. As intrusive measures are normalized to combat the coronavirus, they will feel more acceptable in the face of other perceived threats — like women’s rights or organized religion.
Could this happen in the United States? It’s easy to dismiss China’s invasive measures as unthinkable for Western democracies. Yet as the virus spreads, borders have closed and previously unimaginable quarantines have been instituted — not only in China, but in the United States and Western Europe.
In times of crisis, it’s tempting to give in to fear and prioritize safety over civil liberties. The Israeli government announced plans to deploy counter-terrorism technology to monitor its population and contain the virus. After the September 11 attacks, the Patriot Act eliminated critical checks on government surveillance, enabling the bulk collection of metadata on the phone calls of millions of Americans, in violation of fourth amendment protections on search and seizure. Almost twenty years later, activists are still trying to repeal these invasive surveillance measures.
The human rights implications of unregulated biometric surveillance are enormous: individuals can be monitored and identified at political rallies, protests, religious services, and union meetings. People can be tracked when they visit health clinics, rehabilitation facilities, and LGBTQ community centers — data points that can identify members of marginalized communities and open up new pathways to targeted discrimination. Protestors in Hong Kong, India, and Iran have already been identified and detained with the help of facial recognition technology. The chilling effect of mass surveillance prevents many others from publicly expressing their beliefs, violating fundamental rights to expression, assembly, and speech.
This is not a hypothetical concern: more than half of American adults already have their likeness stored in government databases. Major US cities like Detroit and Chicago have set up real-time facial recognition surveillance systems, and Washington DC and New York City are piloting similar programs. The infrastructure is in place to surveil huge swaths of the US population, and has already been used to monitor and punish political expression. In 2015, for example, Baltimore police used facial recognition technology to identify and arrest individuals protesting police violence. The expanded use of facial recognition technology will provide more opportunities to keep tabs on political dissent, likely targeting groups already under surveillance like Black Lives Matter and 350.org.
There is little existing regulation of the federal government’s use of facial recognition technology. States and cities have been making some regulatory progress, but this patchwork of local regulations is insufficient. It is time for comprehensive federal regulation to ensure that powerful new surveillance technology does not undermine fundamental freedoms that are critical to a functioning democracy.
To be sure, this technology has important potential benefits. Facial recognition databases have legitimate law enforcement applications, and have already been used to solve murders and find missing children. However, the immense capability of this technology means that it must be carefully regulated to prevent abuse.
Given the complexity of this technology and its potential for legitimate use as well as abuse, the creation of thoughtful and comprehensive regulation will take time. In an important first step for the regulation of facial recognition technology, Senators Jeff Merkley and Cory Booker introduced the Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act. The bill proposes a moratorium on the federal use of facial recognition technology until Congress passes more specific controls, providing a critical opportunity to press pause on the unregulated expansion of facial recognition surveillance.
As the US responds to the coronavirus, it makes sense to draw upon successful containment measures abroad. At the same time, we must keep in mind the long-term implications of our decisions and resist the urge to undermine civil liberties in the name of safety. There is little evidence to prove that high-tech surveillance is a critical component of effective pandemic response. Several of the most successful responses to the outbreak, like those in Singapore and Hong Kong, have relied on established public health practices rather than increased surveillance.
When we give up civil liberties, they are nearly impossible to claw back. This crisis must not be used as an excuse to open the door to invasive new technologies.