As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Aside from the revelation of Google’s access to Americans’ medical information, this week saw action on privacy and the Fourth Amendment, plus the questioning of child safety vs free expression.
Warrants for Facial Recognition
Law enforcement departments that have access to facial recognition technology currently use it at will, with no real federal oversight or regulation – something that lawmakers are now trying to remedy. Senators have introduced a bipartisan bill that would require federal law enforcement to get a warrant before using the technology for surveillance.
The Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act was brought by Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and is intended to “implement important safeguards to protect the American public from inappropriate government surveillance,” according to a statement by the senators. The bill would:
- Require law enforcement to obtain a warrant based on probable cause of criminal activity before using facial recognition technology for surveillance exceeding 72 hours.
- Limit such a warrant’s validity to 30 days.
- Have an exception for “exigent circumstances,” in which case ongoing surveillance could be conducted without a court order.
- Collect data on granted warrants and submit to the Committees on the Judiciary.
- Require testing to ensure the technology is accurate and does not have higher error rates for certain groups according to age, gender, or ethnicity.
Various law enforcement departments across the country have begun using Amazon’s Rekognition program to analyze faces, while the FBI has collected millions of facial profiles through state driver’s license photos. The agency was also grilled by congress in 2017 after it used facial recognition technology as part of its Next Generation Identification database for years without submitting a legally required privacy impact assessment.
“Facial recognition technology can be a powerful tool for law enforcement officials,” said Senator Lee. “But it’s very power also makes it ripe for abuse. That is why American citizens deserve protection from facial recognition abuse. This bill accomplishes that by requiring federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before conducting ongoing surveillance of a target.”
On the other hand, some advocates have criticized the bill for not going far enough. “This bill would authorize the invasive, persistent, and dystopian surveillance that communities across the country have rejected,” American Civil Liberties Union Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani told The Hill. “The bill falls woefully short of protecting people’s privacy rights and is inconsistent with existing Supreme Court precedent. Congress should put brakes on this technology, not ineffective band-aids.”
Border Security Phone Search
The Fourth Amendment is coming to the fore of public discussion as technology proves ever hungrier for personal information – and has evolved more quickly than the system of warrants and court orders.
How much power should airport security have to inspect the content of U.S. citizens’ and residents’ phones and laptops? According to a U.S. federal court, the answer is not as much as it has been using up to this point. Liberty Nation reported earlier this year that airport baggage inspectors had been instructed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to look through flyers’ digital devices, without obtaining a warrant or even having suspicion of wrongdoing. The information gathered was not just to aid in border security, however. It was being gathered on behalf of other law enforcement fields.
In 2017, the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with 11 other plaintiffs, sued the Department of Homeland Security, claiming the searches violated Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, as well as the First Amendment right to free speech on the grounds that travelers may self-censor, fearing their messages will be viewed by border officials. On November 12, Massachusetts District Court Judge Denise Casper ruled searches conducted without reasonable suspicion were indeed unconstitutional and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court found that border enforcement does allow for less public privacy than general law enforcement, but that searches should only be made for contraband and not stretch to other personal information. It stated that officers need reasonable suspicion to conduct border searches of electronic devices, but did not go so far as to demand warrants. As to the accusation that such searches violate the First Aendment, the court was not convinced either way, and sought further rulings.
“This is a great day for travelers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” commented Sophia Cope, EFF Senior Staff Attorney.
Pope Calls for Urgent Internet Control – For the Children
The Catholic Church is not exactly known for its saintly treatment of children, but the Vatican has just completed its 2019 Promoting Digital Child Dignity conference. The event was attended by 80 participants, including religious leaders, academics, lawmakers, business luminaries, and representatives from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.
Pope Francis urged leaders on November 14 to protect children from crime and danger in the digital realm. He noted the need for a balance between providing the opportunities that technology affords and protecting children from the associated dangers. “The spread of images of abuse or the exploitation of minors is increasing exponentially, involving ever more serious and violent forms of abuse and ever younger children,” he told the gathering, blaming the spread of online pornography for increases in human trafficking and abuse of children.
The head of the Catholic Church called for tech companies to gain more control over the content posted on their platforms and for governments to create regulation to limit activity online. According to Vatican News:
“In this regard, he called for a fitting balance between the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and the interests of society, so as to ensure that digital media are not used to perpetrate criminal activities against minors.
He lamented that for the sake of advancing the development of the internet and its many benefits, companies that provide services have long considered themselves mere suppliers of technological platforms, neither legally nor morally responsible for the way they are used … The Pope called for appropriate legislative and executive measures to counter criminal activities that harm the life and dignity of minors.”
He also “urged computer engineers to use artificial intelligence technologies to identify and eliminate illegal and harmful images from online circulation and help develop and create a new ethics for our time.”
The pope’s statements fit into a recent trend of powerful figures calling for lawmakers and artificial intelligence to place restrictions on the internet. The question rises increasingly to the fore: What is the balance between preventing criminal exploitation and ensuring freedom of expression online? And, will one be used as an excuse to suppress the other?
That’s all for this week from You’re Never Alone. Check back in next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.