Lawmakers Sound Alarm Over Use of Surveillance on Protesters

Democratic senators are raising privacy concerns over the federal government’s reported use of facial recognition surveillance technology on individuals protesting the death of George Floyd around the country.

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are pressing Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to explain what personal data has been collected on protesters by surveillance technology, according to a letter obtained by Bloomberg Government.

As protests demanding an overhaul of policing following the death of Floyd have spread to more than 350 cities around the country, reports have emerged on the use of surveillance technology by law enforcement.

In response, IBMsaid on Monday that it opposes the use of facial recognition technology—including from other vendors—for mass surveillance and racial profiling, and it will no longer offer its facial recognition and analysis software for general use.

David Ryder/Getty Images
Demonstrators in Seattle on June 9.

“We are disturbed by numerous reports that the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security agencies are participating in the technological surveillance of protests across the country, well beyond the scope of their authorities,” the lawmakers wrote.

The senators asked whether the departments collected any personally identifiable information from individuals who protested Floyd’s death, and under what authority if so, as well as details of the agencies’ data retention policies.

The lawmakers also asked whether the agencies have used facial recognition technology during protests, and if so, what oversight processes were in place to prevent violating individuals’ First Amendment rights and whether the agencies’ complied with privacy laws.

“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,” they wrote.

The senators asked the agency directors to respond by June 19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com

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