Facial-recognition technology endured fierce resistance on both coasts Wednesday, as federal lawmakers and Amazon investors questioned whether the artificial-intelligence software already is posing a clear danger to American privacy and civil rights.

Members of Congress at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing voiced fierce and bipartisan condemnation of the technology, which federal and local law-enforcement agencies use across the country to identify suspects caught on camera.

Members said the largely unregulated technology was inaccurate, invasive and potentially chilling to Americans' privacy and free expression rights. Several voiced support for passing federal laws to restrain the technology's use before, as Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said, "it gets out of control."

The hearing suggested the technology could be the rare issue where liberal and conservative lawmakers are closely aligned. Several members voiced worries about the technology being used in the United States as it currently is in China, where it is critical to the surveillance state's systems of public monitoring and social control.


Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said "there's a lot of agreement" among lawmakers that the technology should be regulated. The question, he said, is whether the systems should face a moratorium while the technology is assessed or refined, or whether it should banned outright.

The technology's higher rate of inaccuracies when scanning people of colour - as shown in research led by Joy Buolamwini, an artificial intelligence researcher for the M.I.T. Media Lab who testified at the hearing - also led some lawmakers to question more generally the lack of racial diversity in the American tech industry.

"We have a technology that was created and designed by one demographic, that is mostly effective on one demographic, and they're trying to sell it and impose it on the entirety of the country," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said.

Daniel Castro, the vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an industry-backed think tank, said in a statement Wednesday that calls for bans or moratoriums on how police use the technology "are misguided and will only undercut efforts to make police agencies more efficient and effective in protecting local communities."

The rise of facial recognition tech is ushering a new age of surveillance. Photo/Getty Images.
The rise of facial recognition tech is ushering a new age of surveillance. Photo/Getty Images.

The group has urged policymakers to "focus on a balanced approach" that would implement additional testing and oversight while still allowing police to use it while investigating crimes.

Amazon - which develops a facial-recognition system, Rekognition, currently used by police - also saw the technology facing scrutiny at home. During the company's annual shareholders' meeting Wednesday, investors voted on proposals that would have banned the company from selling the technology to government agencies.

The proposals failed, the company said. But Amazon said it supports calls for an "appropriate national legislative framework" restricting the technology's police and government use. Matt Wood, the general manager of artificial intelligence for Amazon Web Services, said in a statement that the technology can "materially benefit society," and has been used to identify victims of human trafficking.

"We remain committed to working with Congress to ensure the protection of civil liberties while promoting transparency and accountability in the use of facial recognition technology," Wood said. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)


Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at The Constitution Project at the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, said the hearing "showed a strong bipartisan support for limit facial recognition surveillance, and doing so promptly. Unrestricted facial recognition is widespread and affects hundreds of millions of Americans, but it is clearly not sustainable."

The technology has faced intensifying pressure over its potential for misidentification and abuse. San Francisco last week became the first city in America to ban facial-recognition use by local police and city agencies. Local lawmakers in California and Massachusetts are considering similar measures.

- Washington Post