Biden’s FTC pick is a privacy champion who wants limits on facial recognition


Illustration of a woman's eye being scanned with technology.

Getty Images | Yuichiro Chino

President Joe Biden will reportedly nominate Georgetown law professor and privacy researcher Alvaro Bedoya to the Federal Trade Commission. Bedoya is the founding director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, where he has focused heavily on facial recognition and other forms of surveillance.

Bedoya co-authored a 2016 report about “unregulated police face recognition in America” after a “year-long investigation that revealed that most American adults are enrolled in a police face recognition network and that vendor companies were doing little to address the race and gender bias endemic to face scanning software,” according to Bedoya’s bio on the Georgetown Law website. The investigation led to Congressional hearings as well as “a slate of laws reining in the technology across the country, and the first-ever comprehensive bias audit of the technology by the National Institute of Standards & Technology.”

Before starting the privacy center at Georgetown, Bedoya was chief counsel for the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. Bedoya’s nomination hasn’t been officially announced but was reported today by media outlets including Axios and The Washington Post. Biden’s announcement is expected to be made today, the Post wrote.

If confirmed by the Senate, Bedoya would be part of a 3-2 Democratic majority at the FTC. The FTC currently has a full slate of five commissioners, but a spot will open up because Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra was nominated to become director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Separately, Biden still needs to nominate a Democrat to the Federal Communications Commission, which has been stuck with a 2-2 deadlock since Biden’s inauguration.

Alvaro “blazed a trail in holding Big Tech accountable”

The FTC is led by Chair Lina Khan, whose criticism of Big Tech has spooked Facebook and Amazon, both of which claim she should recuse herself from antitrust investigations into the companies.

Consumer advocacy groups cheered Khan’s nomination to the FTC and are similarly pleased by Biden’s choice of Bedoya. Alvaro “blazed a trail in holding Big Tech accountable and has spent his career fighting on behalf of the powerless, particularly those in immigrant communities. His scholarship and advocacy revealed how Big Data is used to facilitate oppressive surveillance and racial discrimination against the most vulnerable,” Public Knowledge Competition Policy Director Charlotte Slaiman said today.

Free Press President Craig Aaron called Alvaro a “brilliant thinker and accomplished advocate on privacy and technology issues” who will “ensure that the impacts and needs of immigrants and communities of color are a priority… The Senate should move as quickly as possible to confirm him and ensure that the FTC can work at full strength to advance its work, which has never been more important.”

Privacy as a civil right

In a 2020 New Mexico Law Review paper titled “Privacy as Civil Right,” Bedoya wrote that “across American history, the burdens of government surveillance have fallen overwhelmingly on the shoulders of immigrants, heretics, people of color, the poor, and anyone else considered ‘other.'” Modern examples include “racial bias in face recognition technology” and a scuttled plan by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “to automatically and continuously scan immigrants’ social media—their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts—and flag a minimum… of 10,000 of them per year for deportation investigations,” he wrote. (The 2017 plan was dropped after protest by civil rights and privacy organizations, Bedoya’s paper noted.)

Bedoya argued for more transparency into how technology is used for surveillance.

“Right this second, you can go online and find out how many times federal judges here in New Mexico ordered a wiretap, what crimes were involved, how long those wiretaps ran, how many arrests were made, and how many people were convicted. Wiretaps have been around for ages. Why can’t we do this for any surveillance technology invented in the 21st century?” Bedoya wrote.



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