Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. George Floyd. Rayshard Brooks. Oluwatoyin Salau. Robert Forbes. As each story has emerged of a Black life violently ended by law enforcement, white nationalists, or other forms of interpersonal violence, a multiracial movement for Black lives, led by Black activists, has kept pace. What has also kept pace are the disturbing and highly advanced police technologies used to spy on these activists. My mother survived the surveillance of the FBI’s counterintelligence program as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s. As a second-generation Black activist, I’m tired of being spied on by the police.
In June, in the midst of a mushrooming protest movement against increasingly visible police killings of Black people and a simultaneously exploding coronavirus pandemic that is taking Black lives at a disproportionate rate, IBM made the surprising announcement that it would stop selling, researching, or developing facial-recognition services. Amazon and Microsoft followed with their own announcements that they would not sell facial-recognition services or products to state and local police departments, pending federal regulation. As activists have emphasized the long-standing demand to defund police with a more modern call for technology companies to cut ties with law-enforcement agencies, facial-recognition companies face a come-to-Jesus moment of their own. But the companies that are deciding not to sell these controversial products as a powerful protest movement gains traction may be motivated more by a careful calculation of financial and public-relations risks than by concern for Black lives.