Under Cover of COVID

screen simulating facial recognition software identifying vaccination status
Increased use of facial recognition technology is moving the U.S. ever closer to a checkpoint nation. State and federal agencies, as well as private companies, are already capturing your most personal data, often without you even knowing. Now, a global vaccine passport utilizing your faceprint may be on the horizon.
By Linda Bonvie

What does China’s President Xi Jinping have in common with President Biden when it comes to covid and “future pandemics?”

Nothing less than embracing a “global digital health network” that includes “digital solutions” to validate “proof of vaccinations” and further promote “digital COVID-19 certificates.”

In other words, a universal vaccine passport.

The eye-opening admission that the U.S. unanimously agrees with not only Australia, but Russia, and China, along with sixteen other major world powers, that proof of vaccination to allow “seamless international travel” should be collected in a shared database was officially noted in paragraph 23 of the G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration following the conclusion of the G20 summit held this past November in Indonesia.

In fact, the latter country’s Minister of Health, Budi Gunadi Sadikin, simply couldn’t wait to talk about this development. In a conference held before the meeting, which reflected a consensus of those who attended, he stated, “Let’s have a digital health certificate acknowledged by WHO. If you have been vaccinated or tested properly then you can move around.”

But what might these G20 leaders mean by “digital solutions?” Perhaps a QR code like the EU pass? Those in the biometrics industry believe it will be something much more personal.

According to Aware, a Burlington, Mass.-based firm considered a leader in biometrics software that counts over 100 commercial companies and 80 government agencies as clients, biometrics could aid in the creation of vaccine passports by integrating with the functionality of smartphone cameras and microphones. By being mobile, biometrically powered passports can be used virtually anywhere. 

And the “biometric modality” the company believes “most likely” to be used would involve facial or voice recognition.

Biometrics are measurements related to specific body identifiers, such as fingerprints, your voice, a scan of your iris or even your gait. Facial recognition uses a data set comprised of your specific and unique facial measurements. It is an even bigger leap into machine learning, which is described by a cybersecurity company as a “network of artificial neurons that imitates the functioning of the human brain.”

Contact tracing and more

Even without a global vaccine passport utilizing such technology, the pandemic has resulted in a wide-ranging uptick in the use of facial ID biometrics worldwide.

South Korea, a G20 member, rolled out a facial recognition program in 2021 involving thousands of security cameras tracking the movements of those testing positive for covid. Another country in the group, Australia, created a facial recognition app back in 2020 to verify that covid-positive Aussies are indeed quarantining at home by adding in a GPS tracking feature.

China, whose tracking and surveillance of its citizens has received worldwide attention, is said to be utilizing facial recognition technology so advanced it can ID those wearing masks. Russia (still invited to attend the G20, but sending a foreign minister in place of President Putin, who was “busy”) is also reportedly way ahead of the game in tracking quarantined citizens, already having tens of thousands of cameras ready with facial recognition software. Moscow, according to ABC News, is said to have one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems.

Although the U.S. hasn’t yet attained the recognition-ready level of such adversaries, it seems to have followed their lead in allowing its government agencies, schools, private companies and even communities to use the pandemic as an opportunity to capture as much faceprint data as possible.Facial recognition: US President Biden shaking hands with China's president Xi Jinping, standing before row of US and Chinese flags

During 2020, for example, the University of Southern California, “in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” disabled its fingerprint scanners in certain campus residences, requiring that facial recognition be used to gain entrance to dorm rooms instead. (The software was provided and maintained by UBTOS USA, Inc., a company based in South Korea that claims it also works with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Defense along with various law enforcement agencies, although some of those queried have reportedly denied knowing anything about it.)

The activist group Fight for the Future lists dozens of other institutes taking faceprints, including Florida International University in Miami, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin. Of the 115 colleges and universities queried by Fight for the Future, 42 are listed as either using facial recognition or not denying that they might be.

In the fall of 2020 the city of Crown Point, Indiana announced plans to install a network of cameras capable of facial recognition to identify those who weren’t complying with social-distancing rules. Of course, publicizing such a scheme had consequences, and Crown Point officials said that they dropped the idea just three days after the announcement.

Facial recognition technology also appears on cruise ships, with those operated by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity having utilized BriefCam, a video analytics company that enhanced the lines’ existing surveillance systems to allow facial recognition for contact-tracing of any covid-exposed passengers.

In December of 2022, attorney Kelly Conlon’s visit to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show with her daughter and other Girl Scout troop members was cut short soon after entering the building. She was recognized by the venue’s facial recognition system as someone “not allowed to be there” reportedly due to her firm’s litigation against a restaurant now owned by Madison Square Garden (MSG), an affiliated property. “They knew my name before I told them. They knew the firm I was associated with before I told them,” said Conlon, who stated she personally is not even involved in any litigation against MSG.

But the examples of facial recognition surveillance that we now know about likely pale in comparison to those we don’t.

For example, Clearview AI, a highly controversial facial-recognition startup that secretly filled its huge database of facial images by scraping them from Internet sources, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, then licensed that application to just about anyone, was anxious to use its technology for covid contact tracing. In 2020, Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That claimed he was in talks with both federal and state agencies for that very purpose.

Whether his company’s proposition ever materialized is unknown. But by May of 2022 a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and others under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act resulted in a settlement that prevented Clearview from offering its services to private companies and individuals, although it’s still allowed to continue working with federal clients such as Homeland Security, including ICE, as well as the FBI.

(So far Illinois, Texas and Washington are the only states to have passed any type of legislation involving the regulation of biometric privacy, and of those, only Illinois allows individuals the right to sue under the law.)

Leaked logs obtained by Buzzfeed News show that Clearview’s client list includes colleges, countries (Australia and Saudi Arabi, to name just two), department stores, private attorneys, the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal entities.

While Clearview AI has often been in the news, however, they are far from the only company capturing faceprints for federal and state agencies.

‘It was kind of a perfect storm’

As facial recognition to track citizens over the last two-plus years was gaining fresh momentum, the pandemic also provided excuses to use such biometrics in scores of brand-new venues.

ID.ME, a company that specializes in capturing facial identification data, acquired numerous government contracts during that time, many based on inflated data involving fraudulent pandemic unemployment payments.

“The CEO of ID.ME kept stating larger and larger numbers” of money lost from ID fraud, Caitlin Seeley George, a Fight for the Future spokesperson, told me in an interview. “And the numbers kept going up.”

In a somewhat miraculous manner, referred to by George as a “puzzle,” ID.ME scored contracts with the Social Security Administration, the IRS, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, the Veterans Administration and dozens of state unemployment offices. (The IRS, which received a lot of unwanted attention earlier this year due to pressure from Fight for the Future over its new facial recognition requirements, announced in February that it would allow an ID.ME representative to conduct a video call instead of taking a faceprint. But the agency still maintains a contract with ID.ME.)

Far from being an option, however, signing up with ID.ME and following their rules, which include a facial recognition capture or video conference, are mandatory if you want to deal with the affiliated agencies.

“Individuals are being asked to go through the system by a government entity that suggests there is some degree of trust to it, giving this information to a third-party company that could use it for a whole host of reasons,” said George.

Aside from presenting confidential information to a hired vendor, which requires a decent internet connection and a computer or smart phone, the facial recognition feature that is now compulsory in many states to apply for pandemic unemployment claims often doesn’t work, triggering a video conference that frequently takes up to 10 hours.

A report filed in mid-November by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which began investigating ID.ME in April, uncovered not just “appalling new information” on wait times but that the company CEO apparently took numbers out of thin air when pitching ID.ME services.

“Despite repeated requests, ID.ME could not provide the committees with any methodology it used to support its CEO’s assertion in June 2021 that ‘America has lost more than $400 billion to fraudulent claims’ for unemployment benefits” during the pandemic, the report stated.

Notwithstanding those “appalling” congressional findings, ID.ME is still contracted with the majority of the 25-plus states that initially signed up for its services, turning the pandemic’s unemployment crisis into a $45 million-dollar profit-making scheme for the company.

“It was kind of a perfect storm, a lot of things going on, some lying—and they all came together,” said George.

And then there’s all that data.

“They [ID.ME] have very big privacy language about how, where or if they will share your information. And once you do share it, there’s very little recourse to try and get it back,” George told me, especially since “there are no specific federal regulations about the collection and sharing of biometric data,” she said, adding that people are at the “mercy of what companies choose to do with it.”

While “there are a couple of dozen places that have banned the police use of facial recognition technology,” George said, in most of the country “it’s perfectly legal for law enforcement to run your face through a facial recognition algorithm to see if you’ve shown up in the area that they’re tracking.”

Currently there are several bills that have been initiated on a state and federal level attempting to limit how that data can be used (especially for law enforcement, which can have disastrous results since facial recognition appears to do a really poor job of correctly matching people of color and women).

But while legislators attempt (without much success thus far) to curtail the use of this technology by various agencies, the global vaccine-passport approach to using it appears to be moving ahead with little publicity or resistance.

Sadikin, Indonesia’s Minister of Health, stated in November that the “G20 countries have agreed to have this digital certificate using WHO standards” and that it will be introduced at the next WHO World Health Assembly in May of 2023 in Geneva for the purpose of revising the International Health Regulations (IHR), which just so happen to be “international law” that is legally binding on 196 countries.

And that’s a somewhat different scenario than we were presented in April of 2021 when former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki promised: “The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.

“There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential,” she maintained at the time, adding, “American’s privacy and rights should be protected so that these systems are not used against people unfairly.”

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