Eyes on You: Nuns Are Keeping Facial Recognition Companies In Check

Tags: Currents Brooklyn, NY, Crux, Facial Recognition, Faith, Inspiration, Investing, Investors, Media, Nun, Queens, NY, Wall Street, World News

By Tamara Laine

Advances in facial recognition software are just the latest in polarizing technology that has limitless potential for mankind, and for abuse. 

It is a 5 billion dollar industry, and rising. Companies are developing technology that can track your every move, use your face to unlock doors and even follow your church attendance. 

But as tech giants and little-known startups race to sell their software, their efforts have collided with an unlikely force: religious sisters who are showing no mercy. 

“There are wonderful contributions that technology has given us, but we also have to be attentive to the misuse,” explained Sister Pat Daly of the Sisters of Saint Dominic. 

“The fact that it has the potential to be such a violation of human rights on so many levels,” is a concern, added Sister Patricia Mahoney of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Brentwood, Long Island. 

These two women of faith are taking on some of America’s most powerful companies —

Amazon and Northrop Grumman —and they are doing it as major shareholders and investors, banning together to leverage their influence to pressure corporations for change. 

“If you have shares in a company, you have a right as a shareholder,” explained Sr. Mahoney, “to launch a proposal or gather others to do it with you, which is what we do.” 

Tucked away in a humble office in Brooklyn, New York, Sr. Mahoney reviewed a shareholder proposal that her coalition of investors submitted to Amazon in 2019. 

“It’s a very brief resolution, asking simply that they stop marketing it to ICE, making it available to ICE, and that the hope is further really, sophistication of the product and regulation in place,” she said. 

Amazon and Northrop Grumman are two of hundreds of companies racing to create technology driven by artificial intelligence. 

Last quarter alone, Amazon’s web services division, which operates their recognition app, brought in 10 billion dollars in revenue. Though their software is available to the general public, they’ve made a major push to sell it to law enforcement.

A major concern for Sr. Daly, was the recent Northrop Grumman deal with the Department of Homeland Security. The 95 million dollar contract to build a biometrics database, raising red flags for women of faith.

“Representatives from faith communities come together, and what they’re doing is really leveraging the power that we have as investors,” said Sr. Daly. “So when you’re an investor in a company, you are one of the owners.” 

She is leading the fight to have Northrop Grumman include a code of ethics in its technology.

“If you’re an investor, you certainly have benefits, financial benefits, but you have the responsibility to participate and to be attentive to the work of that company,” Sr. Daly added. 

Both sisters are members of the Tri-State Coalition of Responsible Investment, which represents a group of faith-based investors with over 1.32 billion dollars worth of assets.

“The technology is great and pretty accurate if you’re a white person or especially a white man,” explained Sr. Daly. “But if you’re a person of color, there are a lot of problems. And so it’s very dangerous to be pinning using this as evidence against people of color, until the technology is really addressed.”

A recent federal study confirmed this bias. In December, researchers tested 200 facial recognition algorithms and found minorities were far more likely than white people to be misidentified. 

Some experts, like A.I. policy advisor and Harvard Fellow Mutale Nkonde, argue that human rights violations are already being seen around the world.

“I think one of the saddest stories that we’re seeing in facial recognition is in Eurasia, with the Uighur people in China,” says Nkonde. “This group of people are darker and they’re Muslim, and the use of facial recognition is being used to control them. So every hundred meters, they have to go through a checkpoint, where face cams are taken under match to see if it’s them and they can move forward.” 

While it is seen by some as a problematic development in surveillance capitalism, others like Moshe Greenshpan see it as a positive tool in unlocking the vast potential of data. 

His Isreali-based company, Face-Six, has developed facial recognition solutions for health, education and security uses, and even software for churches that tracks attendance. 

“The facial recognition market is really big and diverse,” he explained. “Facial recognition is not only used at churches, the technology is being used via security, by security agencies, by army, by police. And they are all doing it for a good purpose.” 

There may be good uses of facial recognition and artificial intelligence.

“I think some of the great uses of facial recognition technology are certainly when we’re looking to recover people, children that have been kidnapped, people with alzheimer’s, who may wander away and they don’t know their family they don’t know where they are,” said Nkonde.

While the potential of facial recognition technology spans far beyond surveillance, the major force driving the market’s growth is increased demand from government and law enforcement agencies.

“What they’re doing is using the pictures of innocent people to try and identify suspects,” said Nkonde citing the growing number of reports on databases built from scraping photos from social media platforms and phone applications.

Sean DiSomma, who advises Fortune 500 companies on combating shareholder proposals, says that the sisters are “racking up the wins.”

“More importantly,” he explains, “they’re having the conversations even now when you look at what’s going on with Amazon or with Northrop Grumman, they’re engaging on issues around human rights.”

For Sr. Daly and Sr. Mahoney, socially responsible investing is merely an extension of their mission for social justice. 

And there are good reasons for companies to fear these women of faith. In recent years, they have been pivotal in changing the bad habits of corporations for the good intentions of others. 

Currents News reached out to Amazon and Northrop Grumman for comment, and have not yet received a response. 

Although their initial proposals have not been adopted, support for these concerns continues to grow. 

Next the sisters have filed proposals to be considered at the upcoming annual shareholder meetings to raise awareness on important issues around technology, surveillance, and human rights impacts on business.