📆 May 30, 2021 | ⏱️ 7 minute read | 🏷️ computing

Banning Facial Recognition Isn't Enough

Government Surveillance

Today, I came across this campaign to ban facial recognition:


I agree on every point made on the website. Facial recognition systems are a violation of the human right to privacy. Facial recognition is prone to misuse by the government and the police. Facial recognition databases aren’t audited for misuse. They chill free speech. So on and so forth. The accompanying bill H.R. 7235 should be passed.

The hangup for me is that H.R. 7235 is very limited in scope. It focuses only on body-worn cameras used by police. I understand why sometimes bills have to be limited in scope to gain wide support and actually pass into law. So I’m not knocking the bill.

Corporate Surveillance

There’s also another related page on the same domain that focuses on corporate use of facial recognition technology, not government use:


Nowadays the empire of the megacorporations increasingly partners with the government and thanks to government mass surveillance programs, there isn’t much difference in practice between corporate and government mass surveillance. Therefore it’s equally if not more important to also ban corporations from using facial recognition on their customers.

The website also provides a store “scorecard” rating each large retailer based on their facial recognition policies. If you click “learn more” on the stores that “won’t use” facial recognition, you can see that the only verification that stores aren’t using facial recognition is a statement they made to Fight for the Future. Given their strong incentives to use facial recognition for consumer tracking and data collection, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out most of the “won’t use” stores are just lying. To verify stores’ claims about facial recognition use beyond taking their word for it would require an audit which is probably impractical because the camera software is almost certainly proprietary.

False Dichotomy

Both the government and the empire of the megacorporations present citizens with a false dichotomy: privacy versus safety. With government surveillance they say it’s a balancing act between the right to privacy and public safety. Retailers try to do the same thing with the additional point of preventing theft. But this is a fallacy. Privacy and safety aren’t opposed. My privacy is part of my safety.

The real motive for mass government surveillance such as law enforcement facial recognition databases is, boringly, increased government power and control: people controlling people. Suppression of minorities and dissent. In other words, business as usual.

And the real motive for corporate mass surveillance is, boringly, profit. Corporations are psychopathic money-making machines and there’s a very strong profit motive to conduct facial recognition surveillance of consumers. It provides them with data on consumers that has great monetary value.

Those are the real reasons behind facial recognition. Don’t believe the propaganda from the government, the corporate media or the empire of the megacorporations that facial recognition surveillance is about “safety”. It isn’t now and never has been.

Facial Recognition Will Become More Dangerous

Stallman’s Law says “Now that corporations dominate society and write the laws, each advance or change in technology is an opening for them to further restrict or mistreat its users.”. Facial recognition tech is no exception. It will only improve and the government and retailers will use its advances to further suppress dissent and generate profits by invading people’s privacy.


In summary:

A New Law is Needed

In light of these facts, I propose an outright ban on video surveillance of large public and private spaces. It’s not enough to make laws against facial recognition. Retailers have every reason to lie and do it anyway. Once the data exists, it’s already too late to control how it’s used. The only way to guarantee the data won’t be misused is to prevent it from being collected in the first place. Specifically, by physically removing the infrastructure of surveillance.

With this ban, not only retailers but no private commercial entity nor the government would be permitted to conduct mass video surveillance on citizens. No cameras everywhere in every aisle of every retail store, no spy planes that can see every citizen’s movements from above. No surveillance cameras that watch students in schools and universities. No more persistent neighborhood surveillance with Ring doorbell cameras. No subjecting prisoners to constant surveillance while in prison. The new ban would require the cameras to be physically removed, not just deactivated.

Now I’m not proposing a total ban on private and public use of surveillance cameras. There are many legitimate uses that I’m not going to cover in this post. The purpose of the law would be to protect the public against the subset of video surveillance that they can’t easily avoid and therefore also facial recognition and other behavioral tracking techniques. As the retail facial recognition site rightly points out, some people can’t afford to shop at a different store (especially with giant corporate monopolies). Consumers shouldn’t have to give up their right to privacy to go buy food to eat. Nor should citizens have to give up their right to privacy in order to have a job.

It’s all about giving people the freedom to decide whether they consent to surveillance or not. In today’s society that freedom is disappearing fast and we need it back. There didn’t used to be cameras everywhere polluting the urban and suburban landscape and we don’t need them now either. They’re too big of a risk. You may see this as an extreme solution, but it’s not extreme. It’s only far-sighted.

Looking at how facial recognition is already being used for targeted harassment of Uyghurs in China, it’s not hard to imagine ways in which improved facial recognition technology and other dangerous A.I. could worsen the situation. We need to preemptively stop things like this from happening by more strictly regulating what surveillance cameras are allowed to surveil. Private citizens may still record things in public. My objection isn’t to that. It’s to persistent, mass scale video surveillance of large public or private areas where people more or less have to be or would strongly desire to be (e.g. at a park or at work).

The Free Market Can’t Fix It

The reason I’m suggesting government involvement is the free market can’t solve the surveillance problem especially when consumers can’t afford to shop elsewhere or they live too far. Not to mention free market incentives are what created the problem in the first place. Even if there weren’t monopolies preventing competition (e.g. a private versus surveilled shop), that would do nothing to stop employee surveillance. You may be able to choose where you shop, but you can’t just decide not to work. That’s why there ought to be a generalized law limiting corporate and government ability to use surveillance cameras.

Dismantling Surveillance Infrastructure is the Best Solution

Don’t get me wrong. I think the bill for banning facial recognition is great, but facial recognition is only a single threat to privacy. What about gait analysis? What about automated behavioral analysis? Are we going to make a new law addressing each new technology that threatens privacy?

See, the root of the problem is the network of surveillance cameras watching citizens 24/7. If it exists, it will be misused. Therefore, it must be dismantled. It’s the most effective, cheapest, simplest solution that actually addresses the core of the privacy issue. Additionally, with the chilling effect caused by having cameras watch you everywhere you go removed, we would become a more free, and therefore safer society. So yeah. That’s my case. As always, if you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to send a donation. Thanks for reading!