ACLU lawsuit exposes secret government development of advanced facial recognition technology for domestic surveillance

 March 9, 2023

It has long been known that the U.S. government spies domestically on its own citizens, with the only real question being how expansive and persistent that surveillance actually is, and a rather concerning hint in that regard was just revealed.

A lawsuit recently exposed how the FBI and Defense Department have been working with researchers to develop advanced facial recognition technology capable of identifying and tracking "millions of subjects," the Daily Wire reported.

The revelation raises substantial civil liberties concerns, and there appears to be bipartisan opposition in Congress to the idea of broadly using such technology against the American people.

"Core constitutional values" under threat

In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the federal government and demanded the release of internal records regarding the use of facial recognition technology and whether there were any internal regulatory safeguards on how it was used.

"These technologies have the potential to enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale," ACLU attorneys wrote at that time. "Such surveillance would permit the government to pervasively track people’s movements and associations in ways that threaten core constitutional values."

Now, more than three years later, The Washington Post reported that the ACLU succeeded in winning possession of thousands of internal documents that revealed the full depth of efforts by the FBI, DOD, and other agencies to develop and refine the capabilities of artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition technology to be used in public surveillance cameras and unmanned drones.

Known as Janus and funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the program was developed along with help from the private sector to process "truly unconstrained face imagery," and had as its goal to " dramatically improve" existing facial recognition technology by "scaling to support millions of subjects" and be able to accurately identify even partially obscured faces from up to a half-mile away.

A "nightmare scenario" for mass domestic surveillance

According to The Post, the Janus program was first launched in 2014 and ended in 2020 as it apparently led to the successful creation of a facial recognition search tool known as Horus that has since been used by several different federal agencies and has been made available to state and local law enforcement agencies.

The documents noted that the government has access to hundreds of millions of photos in its system, from state-issued ID photos to passports to mugshots to even selfies posted by individuals on social media that were collected without their consent by a private sector third-party contractor paid by the FBI.

Nathan Wessler, a deputy director of the ACLU, told the outlet that this was a "nightmare scenario" in terms of domestic mass surveillance and said, "It could give the government the ability to pervasively track as many people as they want for as long as they want. There’s no good outcome for that in a democratic society."

Democrats and Republicans alike have serious concerns

As noted by the Daily Wire, there is bipartisan pushback here, including from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who told The Post, "Americans’ ability to navigate our communities without constant tracking and surveillance is being chipped away at an alarming pace," and added, "We cannot stand by as the tentacles of the surveillance state dig deeper into our private lives, treating every one of us like suspects in an unbridled investigation that undermines our rights and freedom."

He, along with a number of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and House, reintroduced legislation this week that would ban, or at least significantly limit, the ability of the federal government to make use of advanced facial recognition technology for law enforcement purposes.

"The year is 2023, but we are living through 1984. The continued proliferation of surveillance tools like facial recognition technologies in our society is deeply disturbing," the Massachusetts senator said in a statement. "Biometric data collection poses serious risks of privacy invasion and discrimination, and Americans know they should not have to forgo personal privacy for safety. As we work to make our country more equitable, we cannot ignore the technologies that stand in the way of progress and perpetuate injustice."

The Daily Wire also noted that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) spoke out about his constitutional concerns with the technology in 2021, and said, "There are serious First Amendment, Fourth Amendment concerns about the use of FRT by law enforcement."

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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