Foundation signs statement on facial recognition

October 28, 2021 by Robyn Davis Sekula

The Presbyterian Foundation is one of 52 Global Institutional Investors that has signed the Investor Statement on Facial Recognition, asking for companies to use the technology responsibly and with transparency.

Facial Recognition Technology is being used extensively in new technology, most notably when unlocking an iPhone. The user holds the phone up to their face, the phone’s technology recognizes the face, and unlocks the phone.

Anita Clemons, Vice President and Managing Director of Investments

Principles for Responsible Investing, a London-based organization, is coordinating the Investor Statement on Facial Recognition. The PRI is an investor initiative in partnership with United Nations Environment Program Finance Initiative and UN Global Compact.

“Facial recognition technology is used extensively, and the use only seems to be growing,” says Anita Clemons, Vice President and Managing Director of Investments for the Presbyterian Foundation. “As with most technology, it has its downside, and it’s important that we advocate for everyone that may be subject to this technology and ensure that it is used fairly and accurately with full disclosure to all involved.”

Problems with facial recognition technology

According to PRI, while Facial Recognition Technology does have advantages, it has given rise to numerous controversies, including:

  • The racial and gender biases observed in these systems,
  • The questionable accuracy and lack of public testing of most systems in use,
  • Possible privacy or legal violations in the sourcing of photos for databases,
  • Misuse by some governments, law enforcement agencies or others.

“These represent serious reputational, operational, and financial risks for the companies involved in FRT, as well as salient risks to human rights,” the investor statement reads. “As mass surveillance expands, technological innovation is outpacing human rights protection. There are growing reports of bans, fines, and blacklistings of the use of FRT. There is a pressing need to consider these questions.”

In addition to the Foundation signing this statement, the PC(USA) Mission Responsibility through Investment has done some engagement, mostly with airlines, regarding this technology and how it can disproportionately discriminate against people of color, according to Rob Fohr, Director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

Investor commitments

As signatories, the Foundation has made the following commitments.

As investors, we commit to incorporating the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in our investment analysis of companies involved in Facial Recognition Technology. These Principles urge companies to respect human rights and correct abuses when they occur. The UNGPs call on companies to conduct human rights due diligence to “know and show” they respect human rights through their own activities, and the activities directly linked to their products, services, operations, and through their business relationships.

As investors, we will collectively engage with companies to demonstrate that they have established human rights policies and due diligence for all their FRT activities, and that they use their leverage in their business relationships. We will urge companies to take reasonable and pro-active steps to anticipate possible impacts of FRT, focusing on the most serious and severe potential harm, as well as on communication with their stakeholders. Specifically, we will ask companies to:

  • Disclose the accuracy of their technology after measurement by a recognized and relevant scientific assessment institution.
  • Disclose the source(s) of their image databases. Demonstrate that their technology is constantly monitored to detect algorithmic biases, particularly with respect to race, gender, or age.
  • Demonstrate proper due diligence of clients before making the technology available to them.
  • Demonstrate that effective grievance mechanisms are in place to enable victims to report consequences and to access remedies.

For more information, see the website for the Principles for Responsible Investing.

Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. She is an ordained ruling elder in the PC(USA). You can reach her at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.