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Facial recognition utilized by protestors around the world to identify police

Authorities are not amused
Facial recognition utilized by protestors around the world to identify police

Portland’s ban on the use of facial recognition technology does not apply to individuals, which is why Christopher Howell has been allowed to continue identifying police officers in the city who do not publicly identify themselves with biometrics, the New York Times reports.

Thirty-five congressional Democrats wrote letters to federal agencies earlier this year calling for surveillance technologies being used against protestors, including facial recognition, to be reeled in. More recently, three members of congress have joined with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in addressing a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) urging it to investigate the surveillance of protestors by federal agencies.

Howell says he began working on the project after being tear-gassed in June. He used Google’s TensorFlow with images of police gathered from news articles and social media. His public records request for police officer’s names and personnel numbers was rejected. The tool can identify about 20 percent of Portland police, according to the report.

A public information officer with the Portland Police Bureau said that police had switched from name tags to personnel numbers during the protests to prevent them from being doxxed.

The Times also reported in 2019 on a Hong Kong protestor who developed a program to identify police officers from photos of them online, before being arrested. A Belarussian ex-patriot living in America has also posted a video to YouTube showing how facial recognition can be used to digitally unmask police accused of violence against protestors in Belarus.

In France, artist Paolo Cirio had planned an exhibit called ‘Capture’ with what Index on Censorship describes as publicly-sourced photographs of the faces of 4,000 French police. Cirio said the exhibit was the first step in developing a facial recognition app, though he has come out firmly against the technology.

“I have stated many times that I have done it even to protect their privacy and to show that [facial recognition] is a potential danger to them,” Cirio explained, per Index on Censorship. “It’s dangerous for everyone even for the police.”

France’s Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin said in a Tweet that the planned exhibit was “unbearable pillorying of women and men who risk their lives to protect us,” and threatened legal action if it was not cancelled.

Cirio says there was no risk to the officers’ privacy, and though he has created a separate platform online to crowdsource the names of the police officers, no identifying information would have appeared alongside the photographs in the exhibit. The goal of the exhibit was to highlight the asymmetry of power in law enforcement use of face biometrics by turning the same technology as is used on protestors to identifying law enforcement officers attempting to hide their identity.

The Index on Censorship article describes the dispute over why the exhibition was cancelled.

The episode is somewhat reminiscent of the concerns expressed by the FBI about people using smart home devices like Ring doorbells to “covertly monitor law enforcement activity,” as the BBC reports.

A technical analysis bulletin on the issue was discovered as part of the BlueLeaks document trove reported by The Intercept.

Ring doorbells have been subsidized by taxpayers for distribution by police in some U.S. jurisdictions to increase the surveillance capabilities of police departments.

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