Civic News

Why activists are calling on Carnegie Mellon University and the City of Pittsburgh to ban facial recognition tech

Both institutions have drawn criticism for their development or use of the artificial intelligence technology. Community organizers gathered at CMU on Monday to raise awareness of how it can harm marginalized communities.

Rally organizers at Carnegie Mellon University denounce facial recognition technology on Sept. 26, 2022.

(Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

If you were anywhere near Carnegie Mellon University’s “Walking to the Sky” sculpture on Tuesday afternoon, you would’ve seen 60 people gathered to demand that the university and the City of Pittsburgh ban facial recognition technology.

The rally was organized by Against Carceral Tech (ACT), an organization lobbying against the use of technologies that contribute to mass incarceration. Over two hours, members of ACT and other local advocacy organizations challenged the City and university over harmful ways that technology has been used in recent years.

Why facial recognition technology is criticized

When some people think of facial recognition technology, their minds go to an added layer of security on their electronic devices. However, the tech can also have a host of biases and negative consequences for marginalized people. Researchers have found that the technology can fail to recognize people with darker skin tones or have higher rates of mis-recognition of Black and brown people leading to wrongful arrests and police violence.

Ethical concerns about artificial intelligence are why local groups such as Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology exists, and why CMU’s own Block Center for Technology and Society launched the Responsible AI initiative in April.

It’s also why, in mid-July, CMU’s draft considering a video surveillance policy allowing city’s police to use facial recognition technology during investigations was met with backlash that led to the university withdrawing the policy. In a statement posted on its website, CMU asserted that the university had never used facial recognition technology in the past and took the concerns of students and stakeholders seriously.

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“Based on feedback received from the community to the first draft of a video security policy that would have allowed for the potential use of facial recognition tools in criminal investigations, we have decided not to move forward with further consideration of this policy document,” the statement said.

A spokesperson did not immediately reply to Technical.ly’s request for comment on the rally or calls for a ban on facial recognition. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

An ACT member explaining the rally’s purpose. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

Still, people like Bonnie Fan, an organizer with ACT, want more.

Where Pittsburgh government fits

Under a new mayor — Ed Gainey — there’s a new chance to protect residents from “mass surveillance” and racial profiling, Fan said. But first, the City of Pittsburgh and CMU need to commit to a future without facial recognition technology, according to activists. While outlining the negatives associated with such technology, Fan criticized former Mayor Bill Peduto who she said left a legacy where innovation is prioritized over what’s good for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“In Bill Peduto’s chapter [as mayor] he saw CMU and Pittsburgh as a laboratory,” Fan said at the rally, “one where university research and technology helped cops and militaries enact surveillance, fear and violence to build their shiny vision of smart city Pittsburgh.”

Activists say that current problems in policing combined with the biases in the technology that have been highlighted in recent years will only lead to its use making people of color in the city less safe.

In his exit interview with Technical.ly, although the former mayor didn’t discuss the pros and cons of facial recognition technology, he stated that the tech industry and the companies within it were a natural part of Pittsburgh’s future economic growth.

“There is a small sentiment out there that is anti-technology, or simply anti-large corporation. Don’t allow that to curtail very real potential of Pittsburgh’s economic comeback and the potential future reemergence of Pittsburgh to return to the global state,” Peduto said then. “There’s too much talent here and too much opportunity to allow that type of thinking to prevail.”

During his tenure, the City used facial recognition technology to identify one suspect during a series of cases related to 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Currently in Pennsylvania, law enforcement has access to JNET, a database with facial recognition capabilities, which means that despite the City not having an official policy surrounding facial recognition policies, its police force does have access to it. Fan and others present at Monday’s rally said they feel that the current problems in policing combined with the biases in the technology that have been highlighted in recent years will only lead to its use making people of color in the city less safe.

“With facial recognition, there’s nothing stopping the creation of a ‘perpetual lineup‘ that surveils predominantly Black and brown communities like Project Green Light which was deployed in phenomenally Black communities and creates an atmosphere of paranoia and fear,” Fan said.

Project Green Light is a Detroit-based program that partnered with city businesses to use video surveillance and other digital technology to assist law enforcement. While the local government billed the program as another mechanism of crime fighting, some residents and activists felt it unfairly subjected residents to a “mass surveillance system” that would disproportionately harm Black and brown people.

Where else facial recognition tech could be used

Attendees said Pittsburgh’s immigrants would also disproportionately suffer due to facial recognition technology. Laura Perkins, an emergency response organizer at Casa San Jose and a Friendship resident, told Technical.ly that as someone who works with the immigrant community, she fears that the tech could contribute to family separations and expand ICE’s ability to racially profile Latinx residents.

“We are supposedly a welcoming city, but this technology is not welcoming,” Perkins said. “This is an unregulated system and there is no transparency, no accountability. Facial recognition has much higher levels of inaccuracy with people with darker skin — that is a fact. In Pennsylvania, many immigrants don’t have access to driver’s licenses. When they are targeted by the software, they won’t be able to even prove their identity.”

Activists march around CMU’s campus. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

For other attendees of the march, CMU’s past use of certain technologies would continue to be criticized. Gabriel McMorland, former executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, said that the work the university had done with developing military technology were also cause for concern and an example of how technologies such as facial recognition technology could be weapons in the US and abroad to harm vulnerable people.

“I think what everyone’s doing here today is really important because CMU already developed the Predator drones and a bunch of military technology that’s being used around the world,” McMorland said. “And they’ve been developing and pipelining people into careers or developing technology to be used by police in ways that are only making things worse, or that people are the most harmed by our policing system.”

Over the years, CMU has developed drones that use AI technology to photograph poachers in foreign countries. In early June the university was the recipient of a $10.5 million Army contract allowing it to expand its use of AI technology and predictive maintenance, a technique that uses condition-monitoring tools and techniques to monitor the performance of a structure or a piece of equipment during operation.

On Monday, the rally became a march through CMU’s campus and at times the neighboring University of Pittsburgh campus as attendees carried signs with phrases such as “Surveillance is not safety” and “Break the lineup, ban facial recognition.” Organizers plan to continue pressuring the city and university on the ways it uses its technology.


Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supportedby the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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