Like many legendary singers and Greek philosophers, there are athletes so famous and accomplished, they are known to millions of people around the world by just one name. There is no mistaking the identity of megastars like Pelé, Ali, or Tiger. While most athletes don’t achieve that level of stardom, many fans can still easily pick out their favorite players even when out of uniform. Too bad, the same cannot be said for facial recognitions software being used by law enforcement.
As part of its campaign against mass surveillance, the ACLU of Massachusetts examined Amazon’s facial recognition software and found, among other alarming problems, the software incorrectly matched the faces of over 20 athletes playing for Boston’s professional sports teams with those found in a database of mugshots. Talk about a swing and a miss.
So it should come as no surprise that the entire roster for the Boston Celtics basketball team recently called on the state’s lawmakers to reject the Governor’s last-minute amendment to a police reform bill that would cut proposed restrictions on the government’s use of facial recognition technology. The legislation would ban police from using rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors, and limit when officers use of chokeholds. But if the amendment is approved, it would essentially allow law enforcement to unleash an unproven facial surveillance program on countless residents exercising their First Amendment rights, opening the door for mistakes and abuse. As the players said in their Boston Globe op-ed:
“This bias against Black people and other people of color is baked into the criminal legal system, and it’s perpetuated at every level, including the tools that police departments use. That’s why we were disappointed to see that Governor Charlie Baker, in his amendments to the police reform legislation, removed the bill’s proposed regulations of government use of facial recognition technology. Baker’s rejection is deeply troubling because this technology supercharges racial profiling by police and has resulted in the wrongful arrests of innocent people.”
The companies that manufacture and sell facial surveillance tech to law enforcement claim it can monitor people in real-time, reconstruct past movements from video footage, and identify hundreds of individuals from a single photo. But in reality, the technology allows law enforcement to track and monitor more innocent people without their knowledge by placing their images and data into searchable government databases. Customs and Border officials use this invasive technology to screen passengers on international flights, and schools are abusing these programs to keep tabs on students and faculty.
The software is also deeply flawed. Facial surveillance has a track record of inaccuracies when it comes to correctly identifying the faces of women and people of color. Research shows that facial recognition systems misidentify blacks at rates five to 10 times higher than they do whites. Another well publicized study found that Amazon’s software incorrectly made 28 false matches between members of Congress and pictures of people arrested for committing a crime (might be case of predictive policing going on here, but I digress).
Cities across the country are moving to ban facial recognition software from being used on their residents. Earlier this year, Boston joined San Francisco and Oakland, California, which has one of the strongest surveillance ordinances in the country, to block police from using this technology. Portland, Oregon also passed a prohibition on its use in 2019.
Even Amazon, which faced fierce criticism for stepping up surveillance during the pandemic to silence its workers from calling out unsafe working conditions at its fulfillment centers, temporarily halted its facial recognition services to police departments just days after nationwide protests began in the summer. In a public statement, the company called on the government to “put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use” of this spy tech.
The need for limiting tools of mass surveillance has never been greater, as more Americans continue to take to the streets to protest not just the unjust actions of individual officers, but an entire justice system rife with prejudice against people of color. The Boston Celtics should be applauded for speaking out, but this should be a priority for everyone who wants to stem the tide of increasing government interference in our lives.