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Demonstrators scan public faces in DC to show lack of facial recognition laws

The move is part of activist group Fight for the Future's campaign against the use of facial recognition tech.

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A look at how the demonstrators dressed for their face-scanning protest.

Fight for the Future

There aren't many regulations guiding the use of facial recognition technology. So a digital rights group highlighted that point by scanning people's faces in busy sections of Washington, DC, on Thursday.

The digital rights group Fight for the Future planned this attention-grabbing stunt as part of its campaign to get facial recognition technology banned.

Three activists from the group wore hooded white jumpsuits with yellow signs saying "Facial recognition in progress" on the front. They also had headgear equipped with phones that ran Amazon's Rekognition facial recognition technology. Amazon didn't comment for this story.

"This should probably be illegal," Evan Greer, the group's deputy director, said in a statement, "but until Congress takes action to ban facial recognition surveillance, it's terrifyingly easy for anyone ... to conduct biometric monitoring and violate basic rights at a massive scale."

Fight for the Future's demonstration was part of growing concern about the negative potential for facial recognition software, with many civil rights groups saying it could lead to mass surveillance and even suppress peaceful public protests, since some will worry about being identified. At the same time, tech companies and law enforcement have seen it as a benefit for solving crimes and developing new services.

Still, even major tech companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, are calling for more regulation on facial recognition to ensure it's used as a public good. Microsoft and Google have taken the additional step of avoiding selling their versions of the tech to authorities.

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Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos in September encouraged the idea of regulating facial recognition, saying: "It's a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don't want to put the brakes on it. But at the same time, there's also potential for abuses of that kind of technology, so you do want regulations." 

Meanwhile, a handful of municipalities, including San Francisco, have banned the use of facial recognition.

Fight for the Future's stunt followed a similar effort by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, which used Rekognition to match US lawmakers' faces to a database of criminal mugshots. The civil rights group said it found 28 false matches, though Amazon disputed the findings, saying the software wasn't being used properly.

Fight for the Future livestreamed its demonstration Thursday on the site ScanCongress.com, while the activists scanned people's faces at busy areas around Capitol Hill, then matched them against a database of journalists, Amazon lobbyists and lawmakers. 

Greer said Thursday afternoon that the group scanned more than 12,000 people's faces, including one Congress member.

The group plans to let people who were in DC on Thursday check online to see if their faces were scanned. 

All the photos and facial recognition data will be deleted after two weeks, Fight for the Future said.

Originally published Nov. 14, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:36 p.m.: Adds more details.