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August 13, 2019 at 6:57 am PST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBT advocates raise alarm over ‘facial recognition’ technology

Experts say unchecked use of facial recognition technology could lead to discrimination and harassment.

LGBT people, especially transgender people, could be subjected to discrimination, harassment, and identity theft if careful government controls are not placed on rapidly developing and widely used facial recognition technology, according to the group LGBT Tech.

The Staunton, Va.-based group has joined six other LGBT organizations in signing on to a June 3, 2019 letter written by the ACLU calling on Congress to place a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology for law enforcement and immigration enforcement purposes until privacy related restrictions can be developed for the technology.

“The well documented potential for abuse and misuse of these tools built by giant and influential companies as well as government and law enforcement agencies should give serious pause to anyone who values their privacy – especially members of communities that have been historically marginalized and discriminated against,” said LGBT Tech deputy director and general counsel Carlos Gutierrez in a July 18 op-ed column.

“Without proper privacy protections in place, data breaches that target facial recognition data may become far more likely,” Gutierrez said. “In the wrong hands, a person’s previously undisclosed sexual orientation or gender identity can become a tool for discrimination, harassment, or harm to their life or livelihood,” he said.

“The risks to transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming individuals are even more acute,” he continued.

Gutierrez and other experts familiar with software already in use that uses facial recognition technology say the software has been programmed to divide the people it recognizes as male and female based on their biological or physiological gender.

“The extent of the misgendering problem was highlighted in a recent report that found that over the last three decades of facial recognition, researchers used a binary construct to gender over 90 percent of the time and understood gender to be solely a physiological construct over 80 percent of the time,” Gutierrez said.

He and other experts monitoring the technology say the inability of most of the software now in use, including the software expected to be used for security screening at all airports by 2020, could have a devastating impact on transgender people attempting to board a plane.

“We are deeply concerned about the growth and lack of efficacy of facial recognition technology as a means of increasing security in airports or any other public space,” said Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“The technologies most frequently sold by vendors have proven biases against women and people of color born of inaccuracies and oversights in their development,” she told the Blade in a statement.

“Just as well, they have consistently misidentified transgender people in academic studies, perhaps providing an automated way to out trans people while we’re traveling or just living our lives,” Branstetter said. “In a worst case scenario, such a technology could be used to ensure transgender people are excluded from gendered spaces, including locker rooms and restrooms.”

Added Branstetter: “The use and growth of the technology’s popularity has plainly outpaced the law, and we’ve urged Congress and government agencies to respond to and assess the risks of these technologies before implementing them.”

The National Center for Transgender Equality and LGBT Tech are among seven LGBT groups that joined 29 civil liberties, privacy rights, civil rights, investor, and faith groups in signing a letter drafted by the ACLU calling on Congress to intervene to regulate facial recognition technology.

The other LGBT groups that signed on to the letter include CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers, Equality North Carolina, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, PFLAG National, and TRANScending Barriers of Atlanta.

The letter notes that federal government agencies, including the FBI, have continued to expand the use of facial recognition technology without safeguards.

“The FBI has access to over 400 million photos for face matching, including the driver’s license databases of over fifteen states and passport application photos, has performed hundreds of thousands of face recognition searches, and is now reportedly piloting new uses of the technology,” the letter says.

“This capability threatens to create a world where people are watched and identified as they attend a protest, congregate outside a place of worship, visit a medical provider, or simply go about their daily lives,” the ACLU letter states.

In his op-ed, Gutierrez of LGBT Tech stressed the need for government regulation of facial recognition technology.

“Members of the LGBTQ+ community cannot shoulder the burden of lax digital privacy standards without also assuming unnecessary risks to their safety online and offline,” he said. “Our vibrant communities deserve comprehensive, national privacy protections to fully participate in society and live without the fear that their data – biometric or otherwise – will be used to further entrench existing bias and prejudice.”

Transgender rights advocate Dana Beyer, co-founder of the trans group Gender Rights Maryland, said the urgency for adopting government regulations for the technology can’t be overstated.

“I think the problem goes far beyond the trans community, as is the case with most things happening today, but should we not turn things around in 15 months this will definitely become a tool to make trans lives miserable,” she said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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