Skip to content

Tech 2020: AI, Facial Recognition and Data Privacy on the Campaign Trail

Andrew Grzywacz

Andrew Grzywacz

With November looming, the 2020 presidential candidates continue to occasionally (though, arguably, not frequently enough) make technology a talking point on the campaign trail. Artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and data privacy are some of the hottest of the hot-button tech issues, particularly as they relate to privacy, regulation (or lack thereof) and security – but, to date, have not exactly been handled with an equal level of importance in the 2020 race.

AI America

In recent years, AI and machine learning have been at the core of a nationwide tech conversation. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the campaign trail, where the candidates have not exactly highlighted AI as a major plank of their agendas. Andrew Yang is the major exception, having made talking about AI and automation a core part of his “AI First” campaign and debate appearances. Now that he’s out of the race, though, we are left with more relatively fair-weather candidates who are barely grazing the importance of issues like AI.

When he announced his campaign last February, Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, raised concerns around the impact of AI on everything from economic mobility and income equality to national defense, and the future of work. He emphasized the need to better understand AI and robotics, and the relationship of these tools to the needs of workers in a landscape where automation is steadily on the rise. It was a good start! Yet, on the issues page of his campaign website, which lists out a total of 35 policy proposals, there isn’t a single one dedicated to AI. And that’s just as a presidential candidate; as a senator he has yet to introduce AI-related bills in Washington.

In the fall of 2018, Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren – who all went on to become presidential contenders – signed letters demanding federal agencies that regulate job discrimination and economic opportunity, including the FBI, tackle questions related to facial recognition software and algorithmic bias. Shortly thereafter, Harris and a bipartisan group of senators introduced the AI in Government Act to coordinate cooperation among federal agencies, establish an AI advisory council and expand an office that advises federal agencies on technical matters. But action on the bill has stalled and continues to remain idle on the Senate floor – and it wasn’t exactly a central feature of any of the senators’ presidential runs that followed.

Putting a Mirror To Facial Recognition

Compared to AI, Sanders, Warren, and – the now former candidate – South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg all staked out more concrete positions on facial recognition.

Sanders’ criminal justice reform plan addresses the policing applications of facial recognition technology, particularly regarding border security and immigration enforcement. Given the widespread lack of government regulation around facial recognition, and its privacy implications, Sanders’ proposal is a reminder of both the wide-reaching potential uses for facial recognition and the need for parameters that are set by the White House on how best to deploy it responsibly.

Warren has shared similar concerns, stating her desire for a task force on digital privacy in public safety. The plan would establish guardrails and appropriate privacy protections for this and other surveillance technology, including the use of facial recognition technology and algorithms that exacerbate underlying bias.

And Mayor Buttigieg talked about the need for coordinating the Justice and Commerce Departments, interagency task forces, Congress, experts and other relevant stakeholders to study the matter so that the White House could issue clearer guidance on responsible use of facial recognition technology.

These are all good steps in the right direction. But this is also just three candidates. Vice President Joe Biden and former candidates Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Michael Bloomberg also have not articulated much of any position on facial recognition tech.

Data Privacy and Big Tech

Data privacy may be the most important matter in these discussions as tech giants like Facebook and Google have been frequent subjects of heated criticism over the years for their handling of user data. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another former 2020 candidate, has been vocal about her frustration, which ultimately led this year to her proposal of a Data Protection Agency that would be charged with overseeing and implementing parameters for protecting consumer data at large.

She’s not the only candidate from the 2020 cycle to weigh in on this with a proposed bill. Klobuchar also recently introduced The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA), to give back Americans control over their personal data and prohibit companies from using consumer data in harmful or deceptive ways. The legislation also calls for penalizing companies that fail to meet defined data protection standards.

Warren has arguably been the most vocal candidate on the trail when it comes to Big Tech. In addition to calling for an antitrust initiative that would break up Big Tech companies, Warren has also proposed policies for giving users more control over how their personal information is being collected, shared and sold — and do so in a way that doesn’t lock in massive competitive advantages for those that have accumulated incredible volumes of personal data already.

Setting Priorities Straight

These topics are all of paramount importance to how everyday people live and work. AI, facial recognition and data privacy are already an intrinsic part of our lives. Yet they don’t get the sort of airtime from our presidential candidates that they deserve. Some of the above proposed bills, policy positions and stump speech lines are all good starts, but there’s no denying that tech often takes a backseat to most other issues on the campaign trail.

With the impact that tech has on our lives, particularly without a clear, strong set of guidelines around responsible use being set by the White House and federal government, these candidates – and all politicians – need to be doing more. These issues will only continue to evolve rapidly and take on even greater significance in our society and economy; our presidents and presidential candidates need to scale up accordingly.