June 10, 2020

Wyden Presses Trump Administration to Stop Weaponizing Facial Recognition Technology Against Protesters

Oregon senator says facial recognition can be used to target people of color, and worsen existing racial bias in law enforcement practices

Washington, DC – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden today pressed Trump administration officials to end federal law enforcement’s weaponizing of facial recognition technology against peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out about the police killing of George Floyd and other black Americans.

In a letter with U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to Attorney General William Barr and Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, Wyden noted how facial recognition such as Clearview AI can be misused to target people of color, and worsen racial bias in law enforcement practices.

“Advances in facial recognition technologies should not be weaponized to victimize Americans across the nation who are standing up for change,” the senators wrote Barr and Wolf. “It is no secret that Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition tool is used by law enforcement throughout your departments despite the numerous legal challenges it faces. However, scientific studies have repeatedly shown that facial recognition algorithms are significantly less accurate for people with non-white skin tones.

“The federal government’s use of technology to identify each individual at a demonstration en masse has a chilling effect on all of our protected First Amendment activities,” Wyden, Booker and Brown wrote. “Identifying Americans who are peacefully demonstrating using existing facial recognition technology is particularly dangerous because this information would be of dubious accuracy and could be stolen or otherwise leaked. The Black Lives Matter movement was unjustly surveilled by law enforcement in 2014 and additional actions against those protesting systemic racism would infringe on their First Amendment rights and further divide the country.”

The senators asked Barr and Wolf to answer the following questions: 

1.     Have any agencies in your department collected personally identifiable information of Americans who have gathered in response to George Floyd’s death? If so, for each instance please specify the agency and—

a.      Cite the authority under which you have gathered this information; and

b.     Detail the policies and processes that apply to the access and retention of this data.


2.     Have any agencies in your department utilized facial recognition technology during the daily, nationwide demonstrations that began May 25, 2020? If so, for each instance please specify the agency and—

a.      The date(s) and location(s) of activities where facial recognition technology was deployed;

b.     Which facial recognition systems were utilized;

c.      Whether your facial recognition technology is combined with cameras of any kind to produce real-time or near real-time feedback;

d.     If any of your facial recognition tools have been independently tested for accuracy or discriminatory bias, who conducted said tests, the testing process and the results;

e.      The oversight processes in place to prevent infringement on First Amendment freedoms; and

f.      The processes to ensure compliance with applicable privacy laws.


3.     Have any agencies in your department accumulated photo or video footage of the daily, nationwide demonstrations that began May 25, 2020? If so, for each instance please specify the agency and—

a.      The sources from which the photos and videos were obtained;

b.     The days and locations of demonstrations covered by the photos or videos; and

c.      Which agency policies and processes apply to the curation and retention of the photos and videos.


A PDF of the entire letter is here.


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