By Ella Jakubowska

On 8 June 2020, IBM’s CEO announced to the US Congress that – on the grounds of “justice and racial equity” – the company would “sunset” its “general purpose” facial recognition technologies. EDRi has addressed the company through a letter, but IBM’s response suggests the organisation is motivated by public relations, instead of fundamental rights.

Around the world, newspapers have reported that facial recognition has already been used to target protesters, from pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, to people protesting against the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in the US. It is therefore clear that facial recognition systems are a threat for our rights to free expression, assembly and association.

The EDRi network has reported on the serious risks posed by facial recognition to the full spectrum of fundamental rights and the rule of law. Besides facial recognition, biometric data surveillance includes the way we walk (gait) and voice recognition. Governments continue to use this surveillance to track us, turning public spaces into perpetual police line-ups.

Instead of enabling free, vibrant and democratic societies, facial recognition as a form of surveillance creates societies of suspicion, control and discrimination.

These risks are so severe that EDRi has called on the European Commission to ban biometric mass surveillance in both law and practice across the EU.

On 25 June, EDRi sent IBM a letter asking the company to provide more information about their commitment to stopping facial surveillance. It included questions like “Which contracts will be stopped as a result? Which contracts won’t? How does IBM define general purpose? Has IBM engaged fundamental rights experts? Do these steps apply only to the US, or to IBM’s global activities?”

On 8 July, IBM’s Chief Privacy Officer sent a short response to EDRi’s letter. Their one-page reply reiterated the general commitment of their earlier statement, and elaborated on IBM’s participation in various initiatives on artificial intelligence and ethics. Their response did not answer a single one of EDRi’s fifteen questions.

This response suggests that IBM’s motivation is driven by public relations and not fundamental rights. They have failed to provide any information that could enable us to substantively assess their commitments. Our questions still stand.

How can we know that Europe’s people and communities are protected from the threats of biometric surveillance across our public spaces, when there is a toxic trio of:

  1.  a lack of public transparency by IBM;
  2. a failure at European level to provide national data protection authorities with adequate resources to hold IBM (not to mention the more prolific facial recognition players such as ClearviewAI, PimEyes, NEC, 3M and many more) to account; and
  3. a failure to ban the development, procurement and deployment of these harmful tools?

The short answer is: we can’t.

IBM’s statement in reply to EDRi’s letter shows that relying on the self-regulation or ethical principles of the companies developing these technologies can never be sufficient.

It is clear that corporate PR is not and can never be a policy solution, as exemplified by Amazon pausing the sale of its facial recognition technologies to law enforcement, despite having aggressively pushed its sinister Rekognition technology to police and communities across the US in recent years.

It is high time that the European Commission and EU member states take the necessary steps to protect the EU’s democracy and commitment to fundamental rights. We strongly urge decision makers to permanently and comprehensively ban biometric mass surveillance in upcoming rules on AI.

Read more:

Ban Biometric Mass Surveillance (13.05.2020)
Defund Facial Recognition (05.07.2020)
How Amazon’s Moratorium on Facial Recognition Tech Is Different From IBM’s and Microsoft’s (11.06.2020)
Facial recognition and fundamental rights 101 (04.12.2019)