Staff Columnist

Loebsack should question AI use by law enforcement

Iowa Democrat one of 28 members of Congress misidentified as criminal

Results of an ACLU experiment on the accuracy of Amazon's facial recognition software, Rekognition, released July 27, 2018 showed 28 members of Congress, including Iowa Democrat Dave Loebsack, were misidentified as criminals. (Graphic courtesy ACLU)
Results of an ACLU experiment on the accuracy of Amazon's facial recognition software, Rekognition, released July 27, 2018 showed 28 members of Congress, including Iowa Democrat Dave Loebsack, were misidentified as criminals. (Graphic courtesy ACLU)
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Late last week the ACLU tried to make the failings of facial recognition software personal for members of Congress. Despite being erroneously identified as a criminal, U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack didn’t seem to get the message.

“With each new advance in technology that is used to identify people, we must be extremely careful in dealing with the privacy issues that surround it,” Loebsack told The Gazette. “We have to figure out the correct balance to ensure no one is falsely accused, but also allow the police to do their job and keep the public safe.”

The quote was in response to a demonstration of Amazon’s face recognition software, Rekognition, in which the official photos of 28 members of Congress, including Loebsack, were falsely matched to people arrested for a crime. False matches, according to the ACLU, which conducted the experiment, were disproportionately people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The organization hoped that by exposing the flaws in the system, Congress would be persuaded in calling for a moratorium on such systems that are currently being marketed to law enforcement organizations at all levels of government and possibly already used by federal agencies.

Three Democratic senators — Ron Wyden of Oregon, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ed Markey of Massachusetts — immediately requested 39 federal agencies explain if and how they use facial recognition software, including policies developed to prevent abuse. The agencies span the departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, energy, health and human services, homeland security, interior, judicial, state, treasury and veterans affairs.

The following day 25 more members of Congress signed a bipartisan letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding a meeting to further discuss the technology.

“There is an ongoing national debate about the critical need to address disparities in policing, sentencing and the imbalance in the execution of justice in minority communities,” the lawmakers wrote. “In the hands of law enforcement, this technology would only aggravate this grave situation.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights leader and one of the members of Congress misidentified as a criminal, issued his own statement in addition to signing a letter issued by the Congressional Black Caucus. “Law enforcement should not use this technology until the onerous civil rights and civil liberties issues are confronted and accuracy is guaranteed. If industry wants to engage in the public sphere, it needs to make the public good, not profit, a top priority. American families should not be collateral damage on the road to technological innovation.”

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From Loebsack? Iowa’s lone Congressional Democrat hasn’t signed a letter, and no statement or news release is available on his website.

Meanwhile, even Amazon’s general manager of AI, Matt Wood, updated his initial reaction to the ACLU experiment to add that “it is a very reasonable idea, however, for the government to weigh in” on this technology.

Loebsack should take the advice and ask questions.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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