Once again, a large technology company is in the hot seat over its potential misuse of Americans’ personal data. This time, the company is Amazon and the controversy involves its facial recognition program. That system, called Rekognition, combines Amazon’s artificial intelligence software and a database of billions of images.
Rekognition’s growing surveillance power, largely unregulated by federal law, raises serious privacy questions. In December, The Washington Post reported what it called “an eerily specific patent” Amazon filed to install Rekognition in its Ring doorbells. As The Intercept explained:
Ring has a history of lax, sloppy oversight [on] some of the most precious, intimate data belonging to any person: a live, high-definition feed from around — and perhaps inside — their house.
Given America’s outdated federal privacy laws and lack of a national privacy standards, the potential implications are frightening. Imagine a network of doorbells with video cameras including facial recognition software storing and analyzing your image and actions without your knowledge or permission as you visit neighbors and move throughout your community.
The reach of facial recognition’s capabilities extends far beyond who is standing on your porch when used in video applications elsewhere in the private sector or by law enforcement. The technology could identify who walks into a nearby treatment center. Someone with a medical condition that must be kept confidential could be exposed to exploitation if this data was misused. Based off an individual’s tracked activity, the technology could build a profile indicating their sexual orientation. In the wrong hands, facial recognition could allow for profiling and tracking groups of people on a large scale.
Beyond obvious concerns surrounding surveillance, the technology has the potential to reinforce societal biases which can be harmful for many marginalized communities, including transgender people. Most facial recognition software has been programmed to sort subjects into traditionally understood gender groups – male and female. By misidentifying transgender and nonbinary people, the use of facial recognition could fortify prejudices as it is adopted more broadly into our daily lives.
For the LGBT community, there’s something especially ominous about the adequate federal privacy protections that cover internet activities, including surreptitious video tracking. Our community has unique privacy needs that differ from other communities. For us, the lack of a legal federal privacy standard is a major problem and calls out for Congressional action – now.
Companies like Amazon say that their data-collecting technologies should be used “in accordance with the law.” But that begs a crucial question: what if current law isn’t strong enough to protect us against malicious use of our private information?
America’s outdated laws do not provide for the kind of standardized and uniform privacy protections that we need. For the LGBT community in particular, privacy data breaches can have far-reaching consequences not felt by other communities. A breach that exposes an LGBT individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity—if previously undisclosed—can result in job termination, destruction of relationships, and the possibility for har
assment, harm, or even death.
This is why Congress needs to pass a single legal privacy protection standard applying to internet service providers, social media, advertisers, search engines, websites, and all other online companies. This new standard should have:
Stronger rules to stop the sharing of our information against our wishes;
Protections to ensure that LGBT users and websites or services featuring LGBT-related themes are not blocked or disrupted by social media, search platforms and internet providers; and,
Prohibition of discrimination (including algorithmic discrimination) that stops advertisers from shutting out or overcharging LGBT customers.
By passing federal law with these protections, Congress would ensure that privacy rules cannot be changed if the political pendulum shifts.
For the LGBT community, a better federal privacy standard is absolutely vital to protecting and staying in control of our sensitive personal data.