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Lawmakers Sought to Ban Facial Recognition Software Being Used to Find Capitol Attackers

2021-01-19 06:00:28

US lawmakers continue to push to ban facial recognition software, even as the technology is helping to identify supporters of President Donald Trump who looted their workplace and forced them to evacuate this month.

Investigators and law enforcement officers took photos of the United States Capitol siege on Jan. 6 through facial recognition, which searches for similar faces in databases containing mugshots, social media headshots, or other images.

"It's a great resource," said Michael Sheldon, research associate at the Nonprofit Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, whose mission is to protect democratic institutions.

Racial justice activists have warned that facial recognition can perpetuate discriminatory policing and that constant tracking could become the norm.

Sheldon said he provided the FBI with possible names of several people in the violent crowd thanks to a facial recognition program he bought.

Senator Ed Markey said in a statement that the technology may not be worth the risks. Racial justice activists have warned that facial recognition can perpetuate discriminatory policing and that constant tracking could become the norm.

“We have seen that in the wake of past crises, innocent Americans have been subject to increased problematic surveillance,” said Markey.

He called on the authorities to "keep the public safe and hold criminals accountable without relying on invasive tools that have been proven to have serious problems with accuracy and bias".

Markey joined three other Democrats in Congress last year to pass a botched bill that would have banned federal agencies like the FBI from using facial recognition.

Chris Evans, spokesman for Pramila Jayapal, one of the other lawmakers behind that effort, said members plan to resubmit the proposal this year.

Whether the FBI used facial recognition in the ongoing investigation is unclear. It declined to comment on its tools.

Most of the nearly 100 attackers charged with criminal charges so far have self-reported, been exposed by acquaintances or posted about their alleged illegal activities on social media, according to court records.

But people have sent the FBI tips based on facial recognition. Miami police have submitted 13 possible names from searches it conducted using Clearview AI software, assistant chief Armando Aguilar told Reuters.

Sheldon said the tool he used, which he didn't want to publicly name, searches for online matches, such as on websites that collect mugshots or lists of university alumni. He double-checked the likely hits using facial recognition from Microsoft Corp.'s Azure cloud computing service, he said.

He said the software linked a man photographed in the Capitol with zippers to a portrait photo on Alumnius.net under the name Larry Brock.

Prosecutors charged Brock with violent entry and other counts after a New Yorker article in which investigators identified him and acknowledged that he was in Capitol. Brock's attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Facial recognition previously helped Sheldon expose mercenaries involved in an attack in Syria as part of an investigation into global conflict and disinformation.

For the Capitol investigation, the technology enabled him to quickly find attackers on social media and study their motivation.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; edited by Jonathan Weber and Bill Berkrot)

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