Power and Protest: Facial Recognition Technology and Public Space Surveillance

Protest movements are gaining momentum across the world, with Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, and strong pro-democracy protests in Chile and Hong Kong taking centre stage. At the same time, many governments are increasing their surveillance capacities in the name of ‘protecting the public’ and ‘addressing emergencies’. In this paper, I focus on the ‘chilling effect’ of facial recognition technology (FRT) use in public spaces on the right to peaceful assembly and political protest. Pointing to the absence of oversight and accountability mechanisms on government use of FRT, I demonstrate how FRT has significantly strengthened state power. I draw attention to the crucial role of tech companies in assisting governments in public space surveillance and curtailing protests. The paper argues for hard human rights obligations to bind these companies and governments, to ensure that political movements and protests can flourish in the post-COVID-19 world.