Facial Recognition Is the Perfect Tool for Oppression

With such a grave threat to privacy and civil liberties, measured regulation should be abandoned in favor of an outright ban

Woodrow Hartzog


Photo by Sheila Scarborough via flickr/CC BY 2.0

Co-authored with Evan Selinger

The Trojans would have loved facial recognition technology.

It’s easy to accept an outwardly compelling but ultimately illusory view about what the future will look like once the full potential of facial recognition technology is unlocked. From this perspective, you’ll never have to meet a stranger, fuss with passwords, or worry about forgetting your wallet. You’ll be able organize your entire video and picture collection in seconds — even instantly find photos of your kids running around at summer camp. More important, missing people will be located, schools will become safe, and the bad guys won’t get away with hiding in the shadows or under desks.

Total convenience. Absolute justice. Churches completely full on Sundays. At long last, our tech utopia will be realized.

We believe facial recognition technology is the most uniquely dangerous surveillance mechanism ever invented.

Tempted by this vision, people will continue to invite facial recognition technology into their homes and onto their devices, allowing it to play a central role in ever more aspects of their lives. And that’s how the trap gets sprung and the unfortunate truth becomes revealed: Facial recognition technology is a menace disguised as a gift. It’s an irresistible tool for oppression that’s perfectly suited for governments to display unprecedented authoritarian control and an all-out privacy-eviscerating machine.

We should keep this Trojan horse outside of the city.

The Current Debate

The ACLU, along with nearly 70 other civil rights organizations, has asked Amazon to stop selling facial recognition technology to the government and further called on Congress to enact a moratorium on government uses of facial recognition technology. The media weighed in, and important voices expressed anxiety. Over at the Washington Post, the editorial board…



Woodrow Hartzog

Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University School of Law and Khoury College of Computer Sciences.