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Why Activists Are Calling on Carnegie Mellon University and the City of Pittsburgh to Ban Facial Recognition Technology

If you were anywhere near Carnegie Mellon University Sculpture “Walking to the Sky” on Tuesday afternoon, you would have seen 60 people gathered to demand that the university and the City of Pittsburgh ban facial recognition technology.

The rally was organized by Against Prison Tech (ACT), an organization lobbying against the use of technologies that contribute to mass incarceration. For more than two hours, members of ACT and other local advocacy organizations challenged the city and university over the harmful ways technology has been used in recent years.

Why facial recognition technology is criticized

When some people think of facial recognition technology, their minds turn to an added layer of security on their electronic devices. However, technology can also have a host of prejudice and negative consequences for marginalized people. Researchers have found that the technology may fail to recognize people with darker skin or have higher rates of misrecognition of black and brown people, leading to wrongful arrests and police brutality.

Ethical concerns about artificial intelligence are why grassroots groups such as Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology exists, and why the own CMU Block Center for Technology and Society launched the Responsible AI initiative in April.

It’s also why, in mid-July, CMU’s plan to consider a CCTV policy allowing city police to use facial recognition technology during investigations was welcomed. backlash which led to university policy withdrawal. In a report posted on its website, CMU said the university had never used facial recognition technology in the past and took student and stakeholder concerns seriously.

“Based on feedback received from the community on the first draft Video Security Policy that would have allowed for the potential use of facial recognition tools in criminal investigations, we have decided not to pursue further review of this document. of politics,” the statement said.

A spokesperson did not immediately respond to Technical.ly’s requesting comment on the rally or requesting a ban on facial recognition. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

An ACT member explaining the purpose of the rally. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

However, people love Bonnie Fanan organizer with ACT, wants more.

Where the Pittsburgh government fits

Under a new mayor — Ed Gainey — there’s a new chance to protect residents from “mass surveillance” and racial profiling, Fan said. But first, the city of Pittsburgh and CMU must commit to a future without facial recognition technology, activists say. While pointing out the disadvantages associated with such technology, Fan criticized the former mayor Bill Peduto who she says left a legacy where innovation takes priority over what’s good for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“In Bill Peduto’s Chapter [as mayor] he viewed CMU and Pittsburgh as a laboratory,” Fan said at the rally, “a laboratory where academic research and technology helped cops and the military practice surveillance, fear and violence to build their brilliant vision. of the smart city of Pittsburgh”.

Activists say the current policing issues combined with the biases of the technology that have been exposed in recent years will only make its use less safe for people of color in the city.

In his exit interview with Technical.lyWhile the former mayor didn’t discuss the pros and cons of facial recognition technology, he said the tech industry and the companies that make it up are a natural part of Pittsburgh’s future economic growth.

“There’s a little sentiment there that’s anti-tech, or just anti-big business. Don’t let this diminish the very real potential for Pittsburgh’s economic comeback and Pittsburgh’s future potential re-emergence to return to world statehood,” Peduto said then. “There’s too much talent here and too many opportunities to allow that kind of thinking to prevail.”

During his tenure, the City used facial recognition technology to identify a suspect in a series of cases related to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Currently in Pennsylvania, law enforcement has access to JNET, a database with facial recognition capabilities, which means that although the City does not have an official policy regarding facial recognition policies, its police force has access to it. Fan and others at Monday’s rally said they believe current policing issues combined with the biases in technology that have been exposed in recent years will only make it less safe to use. for people of color in the city.

“With facial recognition, nothing stops the creation of a ‘perpetual programming‘ which monitors predominantly black and brown communities as Green light project which has been deployed in phenomenally black communities and creates an atmosphere of paranoia and fear,” Fan said.

Project Green Light is a Detroit-based program which has partnered with companies in the city to use CCTV and other digital technologies to help law enforcement. Although the local government promoted the program as another crime-fighting mechanism, some residents and activists felt he unfairly subjected residents to a “mass surveillance system” that would disproportionately harm black and brown people.

Where else facial recognition technology could be used

Participants said immigrants to Pittsburgh would also suffer disproportionately due to facial recognition technology. Laura Perkinsan emergency response organizer Casa San Jose and a resident of Friendship, told Technical.ly that as someone who works with the immigrant community, she worries that technology could contribute to family separations and expand ICE’s ability to racially profile Latinx residents.

“We’re supposed to be a welcoming city, but this technology isn’t welcoming,” Perkins said. “It is an unregulated system and there is no transparency, no accountability. Facial recognition has much higher levels of inaccuracy with darker-skinned people – that’s a fact. In Pennsylvania, many immigrants do not have access to driver’s licenses. When targeted by the software, they won’t even be able to prove their identity.

Activists march on the CMU campus. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

For other walk participants, CMU’s past use of certain technologies would continue to be criticized. Gabriel McMorlandformer executive director of Thomas Merton Centersaid the work the university has done with develop military technology were also cause for concern and an example of how technologies such as facial recognition technology could be weaponized in the United States and abroad to harm vulnerable people.

“I think what everyone is doing here today is really important because CMU has already developed the Predator drone and a bunch of military technology used around the world,” McMorland said. “And they’ve developed and funneled people into careers or developed technology for use by police in a way that only makes things worse, or people are harmed the most by our policing system.”

Over the years, CMU has developed drones that use AI technology to photograph poachers in foreign countries. In early June, the university received a $10.5 million contract with the military allowing it to expand its use of AI technology and predictive maintenance, a technique that uses condition monitoring tools and techniques to monitor the performance of a structure or piece of equipment during its functioning.

On Monday, the rally became a march through the CMU campus and sometimes the nearby neighborhood University of Pittsburgh campus as attendees carried signs with phrases such as “Surveillance is not security” and “Break the queue, ban facial recognition”. Organizers plan to continue to pressure the city and university over how they use its technology.


Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member of Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by Heinz endowments. -30-

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