Big, If True Webinar: The Fight to Ban Facial Recognition Technology: Protest in the Era of Mass Surveillance

Big, If True Webinar: The Fight to Ban Facial Recognition Technology: Protest in the Era of Mass Surveillance

August 3, 2020

Friday, July 31, 2020 – On this episode of BIG, If True we delve into the formidable struggle against the deployment of facial recognition technology. In light of the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, there are distressing concerns that facial recognition software is being used to target and catalogue people engaging in protected speech and assembly. Given the chilling effect it poses on civil liberties and its propensity for error — from misidentifying to wrongfully convicting individuals — major cities like Boston and San Francisco have banned its use by law enforcement. The discussion will navigate how community organizers are fighting back against the unprecedented use of surveillance tools that disproportionately exhibit racial and gender bias and how the movement for racial justice means banning facial recognition.

Drawing on the remarkable work of Ben Ewen-CampenChris Gilliard and Emily Dreyfuss, our host Joan Donovan asks: what is the potential human cost of widespread facial recognition technology? What prompted Amazon’s moratorium on selling its controversial Rekognition platform to law enforcement and what are the consequences? Have the successful bans in Boston and San Francisco sparked enough momentum for a nationwide ban? And crucially, is facial recognition so widespread now that it’s even possible to effectively ban it?

Ben Ewen-Campen is a City Councillor in Somerville, MA and a biologist at Harvard Medical School. As a City Councillor, Ben gained a groundswell of support campaigning on a platform rooted in creating affordable living options in Somerville, pledging to offset taxes and create jobs, to preserve green space, and to improve infrastructure. In June 2019, Ben led the campaign against facial recognition technology in Somerville, becoming the first East Coast city to ban its use.

Emily Dreyfuss is the Senior Editor at The Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She is the former editorial director of Protocol. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, covering the impact of technology on society, and before that she was a senior editor at Wired and the senior programming manager at CNET. As the 2017 Harvard Nieman-Berkman Klein fellow, Emily studied how the internet changes the historical record. Her work has appeared in Pop-Up Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Week. She lives in San Francisco.

Chris Gilliard is a Professor of English at Macomb Community College. His scholarship concentrates on privacy, institutional tech policy, digital redlining, and the re-inventions of discriminatory practices through data mining and algorithmic decision-making, especially as these apply to college students. He is currently developing a project that looks at how popular misunderstandings of mathematical concepts create the illusions of fairness and objectivity in student analytics, predictive policing, and hiring practices.


Hosted by Joan Donovan, PhDBIG, If True is a seminar series presented by the Technology and Social Change Research Project (TaSC) at the Shorenstein Center.

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Dr. Donovan’s research specializes in Critical Internet Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and the Sociology of Social Movements. Dr. Donovan’s research and expertise has been showcased in a wide array of media outlets including NPR, Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, ABC News, NBC News, Columbia Journalism Review, The Atlantic, Nature, and more.

The TaSC Project researches media manipulation, disinformation, political communication, and technology’s relationship to society. The research team is composed of subject matter experts, Brian Friedberg, an investigative ethnographer of online social worlds, Gabrielle Lim, a researcher of sociotechnical systems and information controls, and Rob Faris, co-author of Network Propaganda and researcher of large-scale media ecosystems. The TaSC Project aims to understand how media manipulation is a means to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society. The project conducts research, develops methods, and facilitates workshops for journalists, policy makers, technologists, and civil society organizations on how to detect, document, and debunk media manipulation campaigns. The project is creating a research platform called the Media Manipulation Case Book, which will include 100 case studies to advance our knowledge of how misinformation travels across the web and platforms.