In the aftermath of a tragic event like what took place at the United States Capitol on January 6th, we naturally turn from doomscrolling and longing for answers to a focused quest on pursuing justice for the wrongs committed. Humanity has an innate sense of justice, not solely based on what we believe is right or wrong but more importantly on how God has created us in his image and wired us as his creatures to reflect him. The Bible is clear that injustice is a deep affront to God and his character (Psalm 89:14), not only because it is the opposite of who He is but also because injustice is often an exploitation of humanity itself.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen various government agencies like the FBI use various technological tools to track down and arrest countless rioters and criminals involved in the attack on Capitol Hill. But there is much work still to do. In our technological age, this job becomes a bit easier due to the countless photos and videos that were captured by press, onlookers, and even the rioters themselves. Even as they were knowingly breaking the law, many of those who participated in the riot uploaded these images to social media sites and shared them with their friends. Parler, a popular social media platform where much of this media was shared, did not have adequate security protocols in place, and much of this data—including messages, photos, video, and even location data—was scraped by hacktivists exploiting a basic security vulnerability in Parler’s two-factor authentication before the social media site was removed from Amazon Web Services for violating the user agreements.
Much of this data was then posted online, including on a database that was launched last week called Faces of the Riot. According to WIRED, this particular database contained over “6,000 images of faces, each one tagged only with a string of characters associated with the Parler video in which it appeared.” The creator of the site posted this data online in hopes of holding those rioters accountable for the mayhem and the loss of life that occurred on January 6. Outside of this massive database, the controversial facial recognition provider, Clearview AI, announced that their tool’s usage was up by 26% after the attack due in large part to police units across the country using their facial recognition systems in hopes of identifying perpetrators and bringing about justice.
In our technological age, it is easier than ever to digitize, share, and even track massive amounts of personal data online and in turn have that data used in these ways. And our society is experiencing a wake up call on personal privacy concerns and countless debates over how and when this type of data should be used. Privacy concerns aside, one of the most concerning aspects of this entire episode from January 6 is the way that some have sought to go about seeking justice for the heinous crimes that were committed on that day. Unequivocally what took place on that day and inside those hallowed halls in the Capitol building was wrong and those who committed these crimes should be brought to justice as quickly as possible. Everyone who broke the law should be held accountable for their actions, but the way that we pursue justice is also of the utmost importance, especially in the digital age.
As news of this massive image database from Faces of the Riot and of the uptick in use of Clearview AI systems broke, it once again reminded me of the massive power of these systems as well as the responsibility that we have in using them. Often throughout our history, we have asked the question of “can we” rather than “should we.” Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be done because of the countless complexities in this broken world and the ways that these digital tools can easily be exploited to dehumanize our fellow image bearers.
As Andy Greenberg wrote in WIRED, “Aside from the clear privacy concerns it raises, Faces of the Riot’s indiscriminate posting of faces doesn’t distinguish between lawbreakers and people who merely attended the protests outside.” The potential for abuse, misidentification, and overreliance on these tools is incredibly high and must factor into the pursuit of justice in this particular situation. This type of public posting of images is extremely dangerous, especially when paired with the fact that facial recognition technology is known to have certain biases and flaws in the design, often including a higher risk of misidentification for people of color. And even without the use of these facial recognition tools, this type of data being posted openly online can also lead to the misidentification and even the harassment of those who did not commit any crime. Simply put, indiscriminately posting this type of data outside the systems of justice in our nation can lead to dangerous outcomes for all involved.
As Christians seek to pursue justice in a broken world, we must remember that we are not to do evil even if good might come of it (Romans 3:8). Vigilante justice is not true justice, especially if it puts innocent people and bystanders at risk. In our highly volatile culture and with the rise of real world violence fueled by online division, it is simply not wise to indiscriminately post this type of personal data online for all to see. It must be handled by the proper authorities and justice sought in a righteous manner.
These types of public databases are ripe for abuse and exploitation, especially for those who seek to pursue what they see as justice outside of the bounds of the law. Wisdom calls us to pursue justice in a just way, which is not always in the most convenient way. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Justice will ultimately prevail, not because of our ingenuity or technological prowess but because we serve a just God. Thus we must trust in that fact and seek to do the right thing in the right way.