Alphabet CEO supports EU push to temporarily ban facial recognition in public spaces

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai’s decision to back the EU’s proposal to ban the use of face recognition in public spaces for five years drew praise from rights activists.

“I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” Reuters cited Pichai as saying at Bruegel think tank conference in Belgium. Google had already pledged that it would not sell facial recognition surveillance products without first addressing the drawbacks and potential abuse of the technology.

At the same conference, Microsoft President Brad Smith cautioned against nixing a technology that could be useful to do good, such as reunite missing children with their families. “The second thing I would say is you don’t ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver,” Smith said.

Pichai was “right to back a temporary ban on face recognition — and the United States should likewise halt law enforcement use of this technology without delay,” said Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “As reports this weekend further confirmed, unethical surveillance companies will not wait for regulations before pushing their untested, error-prone, and dystopian face tracking technologies on police departments across the country and the world.”

A few days earlier, the New York Times reported that law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels secretly had been using a facial recognition app developed by Clearview AI to match photos against a database containing billions of face scans of Americans the company said it scraped from websites like YouTube, Facebook and Venmo.

Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project called the initiative “a disturbing demonstration of the dangerous reality of face recognition technology today” and said “police should not be able to investigate and prosecute us by secretly running an error-prone and unregulated technology provided by an untested startup that has shadily assembled a database of billions of face scans of everyday Americans."

Saying “we cannot sit idly by while a dangerous dragnet surveillance architecture is built in the shadows, threatening our core rights and values in a free society,” Guliani called for “lawmakers to swiftly put the brakes on law enforcement use of face recognition, before it's too late."

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