Don’t use face recognition to fight COVID: We need disease surveillance, not a surveillance state

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 11, 2020


When it came to light that Clearview AI, the dubious tech company that scraped billions of images of people without their permission from millions of websites to power their facial recognition app, was talking with federal and state agencies to track COVID-19, Sen. Ed Markey demanded greater transparency. The thing is, we already know enough to conclude that face recognition technology shouldn’t be used to fight COVID-19.

Clearview’s co-founder, Hoan Ton-That, claims that facial recognition technology can be used to identify people in images that are taken from cameras monitoring public areas, and that this can happen without compromising privacy. If you’re at a store or the gym, he reasons, neither you nor the people surrounding you have a reasonable expectation of privacy — but everyone will want to know whether they came into contact with someone infected by the coronavirus.

Neatly separating what’s “private” from what’s “public” in this way is slippery and disingenuous.

Legally, “public information” has no set definition. It’s true that expectations of privacy diminish when we leave our house and that, for instance, a photographer might snap our photo, or a police officer might follow us if he’s working on an investigation. But the idea that we give up any and all claims to privacy just by leaving our residence is a misconception that dates back to earlier times when surveillance technologies were far more primitive.

In today’s age of robot surveillance, refusing to acknowledge that citizens have valid privacy interests in things they share with others in public settings could grant corporations, government officials and busybodies a blank check to monitor every person on earth every time they leave the house, everywhere they go in public, for their entire existence. That’s a blueprint for tyranny.

What’s more, introducing facial recognition technology into the already fraught U.S. efforts to conduct contact tracing effort will undermine any chance that they have for being effective public health measures or initiatives that adhere to appropriate privacy standards. There are two primary reasons why.

Read the full piece at the NY Daily News