Even as the tech biggies—Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM—hit pause on surveillance and facial recognition, the rest of the world won’t be sitting still
By Siddharth Pai
September 10, 2021, found me in the same place I was on September 10, 2001—landing in La Guardia Airport in New York City. I dedicated the next day to remembering and reliving the events of 20 years ago, and how they changed me.
New York was in its heyday in 2001, having just been cleaned up by mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s iron-handed rule. It was safe, even at night. Homeless people were nowhere in sight. Despite the 9/11 attacks, the city continued to be a magnet for financial services, advertising and media, It is also a small-time rival to California with its “Silicon Alley” start-ups. But the Covid-19 pandemic has scarred the city. Homelessness is apparent again, and many other aspects of life in this teeming city have also metamorphosed.
One of these changes has nothing to do with Covid-19. It is the relentless online surveillance which started in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In the two decades since the towers fell, a battery of electronic eyes has risen—a steel fixture mounted above the door of a store, the hidden glass orb on lampposts—all hidden cameras that escape people’s notice, but can still always see them.
Amnesty International recently conducted a volunteer count of the number of cameras used by the New York Police Department (NYPD) for surveillance. The volunteers counted and tagged 15,280 cameras across just three of the five boroughs of the city. Their output is used for facial recognition software programmes. “This sprawling network of cameras can be used by police for invasive facial recognition and risk, turning New York into an Orwellian surveillance city,” says Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher at Amnesty International. “You are never anonymous. Whether you’re attending a protest, walking to a particular neighbourhood, or even just grocery shopping—your face can be tracked by facial recognition technology using imagery from thousands of camera points across New York.” These police cameras are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to its departmental cameras, the NYPD has access to over 20,000 privately installed cameras—across corporate offices and other private establishments. Prior to 9/11, the New York Civil Liberties Union counted less than 2,400 cameras in Manhattan.
Interestingly, after tortured self-examination, three American big tech companies announced last year that they will be pulling back their facial recognition programmes. Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all said they were either cancelling their programmes or placing holds on police departments using their facial recognition algorithms.
According to a letter to US legislators from IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna, the company is to abandon general purpose and analysis software for facial recognition. His letter stated that his firm does “not condone uses of any technology …for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms…”. Amazon has issued a one-year ban on police departments using Rekognition, its facial search technology. And Microsoft is waiting for new legislation to be adopted before selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement organisations.
Some self-righteous observers say this is a good thing. The author of an article in Forbes says, “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of IBM, Microsoft and Amazon and their roles in influencing other tech companies to take a stronger stand on human rights and anti-discrimination… Let’s hope other tech companies start screening their technology through similar human rights and anti-discrimination glasses and follow their lead.”
The recent moves on facial recognition are indeed a volte-face for some big tech firms. In mid-2018, Rekognition, Amazon’s open application programming interface for facial recognition, made news for showing startling results on a test run by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This organization test-scanned the faces of all 535 members of US Congress against 25,000 public mugshots of arrested people and/or criminals. No member of Congress was in these images, but Amazon’s system generated 28 false matches, with obvious implications.
At the time, Amazon reacted that the ACLU’s tests were run at its default confidence threshold of 80%, and not at the 95% that the company recommends for law enforcement applications where false identification can have serious consequences. It appears that such nuanced arguments are now moot. Rekognition and its two brethren have been voluntarily stopped for a while.
Other tech companies that routinely use face recognition technology are still conspicuously absent from the conversation. So are well-funded start-ups such as Clearview AI, whose technology is being used by over 2,000 law enforcement agencies and companies around the world. Clearview claims to have scraped more than 3 billion photos off the internet, including from popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. It retains those photos in its database even after users delete them from the respective platforms or take their accounts private.
Meanwhile, China’s surveillance of its own citizens is well known. It has also flung its facial-recognition net farther afield. Chinese “aid” money doled out to some Latin American and African countries goes into buying surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology from Chinese giants such as Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua.
Despite the fine intentions of Amazon, IBM and Microsoft (and the tacit admission of the limitations of their own facial-recognition technology), the rest of the world isn’t standing still. Even America’s most prominent detractor, China, has been going after the technology assiduously. Cyclops cameras and intrusive software are here to stay.
The author is Technology consultant and venture capitalist
By invitation from New York