By Grace Raih
February 26, 2021
While facial recognition technology and predictive analytics tools are new developments, their utility extends from the roots of policing - a system designed to uphold and maintain white supremacy. In her book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, author Simone Browne writes, “A critical biometric consciousness must acknowledge the connections between contemporary biometric information technologies and their historical antecedents.” Browne points out the inherent bias critique of surveillance tech is incomplete without a reckoning of the racial motivations that inform all means of policing, old and new.
“From lantern laws to drones, seeing the ‘other’ has always been rooted in anti-black racism and the othering of colonized peoples,” says Leah Horgan of Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a collective that mobilizes against police spying through abolitionist resources and grassroots campaigns to sustain an intersectional, long term movement to dismantle government surveillance. Horgan states that efforts to reform police monitoring gives cops, “...language or tools that allow them to say they’re doing it in an unbiased way, when truly the model of policing comes from racist beginnings.” One of the Coalition's resources called The Algorithmic Ecology is a mode of resistance that maps out power relations surrounding algorithmic technologies, a visualization of power and its harms created to highlight where, “the community has opportunities to resist, dismantle, and abolish systems of oppression altogether.”
Like the LA collective, there are many other grassroots organizations working hard to oppose and abolish these surveillance apparatuses rooted in racism. The Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, uses a Street Watch program as a method of subverting police power. Their technique could be categorized as “sousveillance”, or “observing and recording by an entity not in a position of power or authority,” a term developed as a way of naming an active inversion to the power relations that surveillance entails. WRAP utilizes street outreach and videotaping police with combined media coverage and pro-bono legal defense as a means to effect change for poor and houseless people who face the brunt of police harassment and abuse.
Our Data Our Bodies is a BIPOC team that raises consciousness in their communities surrounding how data is collected, stored and shared by corporations and governments. In recent years the group has fought against Project Green Light, a public-private surveillance network program that has placed cameras in over 1,500 locations in Detroit. Green Chairs, Not Green Lights is their counter-campaign that calls on neighbors to reinhabit front porches in order to establish community safety over security devices. In coalition with other Black-led activist groups around Detroit, they have worked to impose restrictions on Green Light including a ban on the use of facial recognition technology on any live feeds.
Transparency efforts, ordinances and oversight bodies, “...[give] these technologies the ability to keep refining and experimenting while we’ve already proven the harm,” states Horgan. Whether or not inaccuracies and bias are “corrected” by reform, BIPOC communities will continue to be pushed further into the grips of the carceral state. Rather than invest further into the racist, imperialist violence of the police industrial complex we must support those who work to subvert and destroy it, imagining new paths for safety all together.