The fight against facial recognition software and its inherent racial bias is far from over. But even if the larger technology companies say they have curbed their development of these technologies, one group in particular still isn’t having it: And now, the nonprofit is using its soapbox to warn consumers about potential risks.
It’s been quite the month for Fight for the Future, a coalition of leaders who represent the A to Z of various workers, from artists to z/OS systems programmers. It’s safe to assume, however, that they probably wish their time was spent doing their actual work instead of confronting how technology and telecommunication companies’ shenanigans are getting in the way of fair access to the internet and fair treatment under the law.
First, Fight for the Future is looking to amplify the revelation that the broadband industry was reportedly behind the filing of millions of fake comments that helped lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rescind its stance on net neutrality in 2017, and to demand accountability for the industry players involved. The media have largely overlooked that story, despite New York Attorney General Letitia James’ bombshell report on the fake comments earlier this month.
The pitfalls of facial recognition software and algorithms are also looming, and it could potentially put U.S. residents in legal jeopardy. More retailers are using such technology to track shoppers’ movements, match identities to purchases and, in the end, hopefully find ways to lure you with deals to get you to buy more.
Left undiscussed is how, in the wrong hands, such technology could put people in legal trouble for crimes they did not commit, such as shoplifting. Retailers would reply that the deployment of technology is only one way to prevent theft and thereby keep prices low.
Nevertheless, that statement also flies in the face of how most retailers approach shoplifting: Most won’t publicly admit they will turn a blind eye to it (mostly out of legal and reputational concerns, and in fairness, there’s a situation in San Francisco that has shown the opposite extreme), but there is no shortage of online forums where retail employees make it clear they’ve been told not to confront a suspected shoplifter. Still, reports indicate some retailers are leaning on facial recognition software instead.
“There are very few laws to protect people from this intense surveillance, and stores do their best to hide what they’re doing to avoid scrutiny,” Fight for the Future said in a recent email blast. “But even if people did know this was happening, not everyone can opt out of shopping at certain stores depending on where they live or what they can afford. People who work in these stores don’t have a choice if they want to keep their job.”
Several large technology companies, including Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, have backed away from developing facial recognition software for a bevy of reasons. One of them is over the risk of dubious use by law enforcement agencies, a concern that was amplified last summer as protests demanding true social justice swept across the U.S. But that isn’t stopping smaller technology companies from creating, developing and improving facial recognition software.
This begs the question: Even if smaller technology companies say they won't provide this technology to law enforcement because it has been proven to be inaccurate and racist, why would they provide it to retailers to profile customers simply trying to shop in their stores? As with any technology, one purported “good use” does not preclude companies from harnessing it for other reasons.
Robert Williams, a Detroit-area man who was wrongfully arrested in front of his family after being misidentified by facial recognition software, is one person who spoke out last summer. "Federal studies have shown that facial-recognition systems misidentify Asian and black people up to 100 times more often than white people," Williams wrote in the Washington Post. “I get angry when I hear companies, politicians and police talk about how this technology isn’t dangerous or flawed. What’s worse is that, before this happened to me, I actually believed them.”
For consumers who wish to base their shopping choices at least in part on where such creepy technology is not being used, Fight for the Future has a solution. The nonprofit recently rolled out a scorecard that lists major retailers and food services companies based whether they use, might use, or will not use such technology, including a seamless way for people to call them out on social media or email them directly about concerns they may have.
Companies that as of press time are in the green, saying they “won’t use” facial recognition technology now or in the future, include Costco, CVS, Home Depot, Target and Walmart.
“We are on the verge of an unprecedented increase in state and private spying that will be built in plain sight,” Fight for the Future said in a public statement. “People are alarmed, and this map and the toolkit arms people everywhere with the resources to both fight back and learn from how others are doing it. It’s going to take all of us to rid this country of this most dangerous technology.”
Image credit: Melanie Lim/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.