Hey, remember US Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the guy who said poor people should stop buying so many dang iPhones if they want healthcare? Well, the dingus has done it again: During a congressional hearing about the US government’s use of use of facial recognition technology on Wednesday, Chaffetz suggested using that same technology to track undocumented immigrants.
It was easy to miss the comment amid Chaffetz’s largely critical (or at least sceptical) assessment. Among other concerns, the House Oversight Committee chairman raised the possibility that facial recognition could be used in a way that “chills free speech” by “targeting people attending certain political meetings”, for example, or used to track people’s real-time locations. He also brought up the “unintended racial, gender or age bias or deficiencies” in the technology, saying those raise “serious concerns”, and worried that the FBI could put “everybody’s face in one database or a series of databases”.
Then, before introducing the witnesses, Chaffetz screwed it all up, suggesting that the potentially dystopian surveillance tech would be OK if we just used to track undocumented immigrants (emphasis ours):
The technology will also show us, the statistical data will show us, the bigger the database, the more difficult it is for the facial recognition technology to get it right. If the database was smaller to known criminals, wanted criminals, people that are here illegally, maybe those are the types of things that we should be focused on, as opposed to everybody, and that’s one of the questions and why we have a distinguished panel today.
If Chaffetz is really concerned about the size of the database, it’s impossible to square that with his suggestion: According to Pew, there were around 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the US in 2014. And although Chaffetz himself didn’t offer any details about how this technology might be deployed to catch undocumented immigrants, at least one of his Democratic colleagues has suggested forcing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to wear body cams. Together, these ideas form a seriously terrifying proposal: A domestic security force dedicated to scanning the faces of citizens to detain alleged interlopers in their midst.
The use of facial recognition technology to track immigrants has been tested before: A US Customs and Border Patrol ran a pilot program in 2015 at Dulles Airport, but that only aimed to catch impostors using US passports. And last month, the US federal government introduced a “checkout” system that uses facial recognition to verify the identity of foreign visitors leaving on foot. Other nations including Australia are already deploying facial recognition technology at their borders, possibly even replacing passports.
In the past, Chaffetz has been a serious privacy advocate, even introducing a bill that would outlaw warrantless mobile phone surveillance. But if anyone tries to give Chaffetz credit for apparently being concerned about the implications of facial recognition technology, don’t let them.