Keeping Up with Technology in a Democracy

When domestic terrorists attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the FBI was able to identify many of the terrorists using facial recognition technology (FRT). Artificial intelligence algorithms can match facial features from photos and videos of the riot to facial features from photos and videos posted on social media or provided by other sources. Most people would assert that technology is providing valuable support for the preservation of our democracy in this case.

In another case, FRT was used to track down a protestor in a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City. The police arrested the protestor for shouting at a police officer using a bull horn allegedly causing hearing loss. There is some dispute about whether the police had a legitimate right to go after the protestor, but there is no dispute that the police violated its own principles that FRT should only use photos from prior arrests in identifying a suspect. Was the use of FRT, in this case, a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”)

Like any technology based upon artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology is only as good as the underlying database from which it is developed. The databases used in artificial intelligence are developed by human classification and labeling. These workers come from places in the world where there are just a few job opportunities. Pay can be as low as $2/hour. The matches produced by FRT are often in error because of classification errors made by these workers. False positives tend to be much more prevalent for people of color. With the mystique of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, how is a jury of peers able to make a reasoned judgment of guilt or innocence?  Technology can often give an unfair advantage to one side, even when there are known flaws.

Technology is rapidly advancing, while our democracy has taken centuries to evolve. Changes in our legal practices may take years to work their way through our three branches of government. How might we adjust our democratic practices when technology is rapidly advancing while our adjustments to technology can move very slowly? Or are there irreconcilable technological challenges to democracy?

Just imagine how we might develop a faster response system that protects our democracy from technological advances. Can you imagine an approval agency for new technologies such as the FDA for new drugs? Just imagine how a jury of peers can be viable when one side has the power of technology to make its case.

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“The combination of hatred and technology is the greatest danger threatening mankind.” – Simon Wiesenthal (Holocaust survivor, Nazi hunter, and writer)

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