Keep Facial Recognition Away from COVID-19 Response


MATTHEW FEENEY, CATO INSTITUTE

As we begin another year of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can be forgiven for feeling plenty of frustration. Across the world, governments have responded in a variety of ways, with enough examples of incompetence and panic‐​mongering to fill a book. That millions of people across the world are hesitant to take effective vaccines and willing to believe nonsensical COVID-19 conspiracy theories only adds to the frustration. Lawmakers will undoubtedly continue to feel pressure from the public in 2022 to get the pandemic under control. This month, a city in South Korea will begin a facial recognition COVID-19 contact tracing trial. Lawmakers and other officials in the U.S. should reject such an approach to COVID-19 contact tracing.

Using facial recognition to tackle COVID-19 is not reserved to South Korea. Facial recognition has already been used for COVID-19 contact tracing or to monitor quarantine in China, Russia, Poland, and India. In the U.S., Molloy College and the University of Southern California installed facial recognition systems as part of their attempts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Facial recognition is not without its benefits, but absent appropriate constraints it can be used as a part of an invasive persistent surveillance system. Perhaps the most notable examples of facial recognition being used for surveillance can be seen in China, where facial recognition is used as part of the Chinese government’s persecution of the Muslim‐​majority Uyghur minority. In the U.S., facial recognition is not used to the extent it is in China, but it is nonetheless the case that tens of millions of Americans can have their photos searched by facial recognition systems. This is in large part thanks to the fact that many state DMVs allow for law enforcement to query their databases.

There is a particular concern in the U.S. that facial recognition exacerbates racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, with African Americans being among the most misidentified. This facial recognition racial disparity has resulted in many bans on police facial recognition across the country. This is not surprising given the rhetoric surrounding debates on American policing and the role of race in the history of American law enforcement. Nonetheless, we should be on guard for surveillance technology to make appearances in American towns and cities under the guise of a public health measure.

As the ACLU correctly notes, although facial recognition is rarely a part of COVID-19 measures in the U.S., overbroad contact tracing efforts could lead to a situation where facial recognition, although deployed to tackle COVID-19, would continue as a surveillance tool after the end of the pandemic:

Though these instances of campus and state overreach are far from the norm, overbroad efforts to curb and track COVID-19 leave the door open to an abiding surveillance apparatus that won’t be dissolved once the public emergency dust settles. As the Biden administration looks into the interoperability of contact tracing apps, tech companies like sp0n — the creators of the controversial neighborhood safety app Citizen — are partnering with cities for digital contact tracing, while others investigate how contact tracing apps might double as digital immunity and vaccination passports for global travel.

For the last few decades we have been accustomed to surveillance debates usually focusing on government snooping in the national security context. But terrorist attacks such as 9/11 are not the only tragedies that can lead governments to spy on citizens. Pandemics, like terrorist attacks, prompt citizens to call on lawmakers to act, and we should expect such calls to continue in 2022, especially if the new Omicron variant continues to result in lockdowns, travel bans, and other measures. Including facial recognition as a part of a COVID-19 response would risk an invasive surveillance technology becoming entrenched into American society absent appropriate controls.

(Readers interested in a more in‐​depth discussion of COVID and surveillance may want to check out a chapter of Cato’s Pandemics and Policy guide I wrote with my colleague Julian Sanchez on COVID, contact tracing, and privacy.)


Used with permission. Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


Matthew Feeney is the director of Cato’s Project on Emerging Technologies, where he works on issues concerning the intersection of new technologies and civil liberties. Before coming to Cato, Feeney worked at Reason magazine as assistant editor of Rea​son​.com. He has also worked at the American Conservative, the Liberal Democrats, and the Institute of Economic Affairs. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, HuffPost, The Hill, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Examiner, City A.M., and others. He also contributed a chapter to Libertarianism.org’s Visions of Liberty. Feeney received both his BA and MA in philosophy from the University of Reading.

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