surveillance camera

Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition

(reprinted from the Decolonized Tech blog)

By Nabil Hassein

Researchers have documented the frequent inability of facial recognition software to detect Black people’s faces due to programmers’ use of unrepresentative data to train machine learning models.1 This issue is not unique, but systemic; in a related example, automated passport photo validation has registered Asian people’s open eyes as being closed.2 Such technological biases have precedents in mediums older than software. For example, color photography was initially optimized for lighter skin tones at the expense of people with darker skin, a bias corrected mainly due to the efforts and funding of furniture manufacturers and chocolate sellers to render darker tones more easily visible in photographs — the better to sell their products.3 Groups such as the Algorithmic Justice League have made it their mission to “highlight algorithmic bias” and “develop practices for accountability during the design, development, and deployment of coded systems”.4 I support all of those goals abstractly, but at a concrete level, I question whose interests would truly be served by the deployment of automated systems capable of reliably identifying Black people.

As a longtime programmer, I know first-hand that software can be an unwelcoming medium for Black folks, not only because of racism among programmers, but also because of biases built into code, which programmers can hardly avoid as no other foundations exist to build on. It’s easy for me to understand a desire to rid software of these biases. Just last month, I wrote up a sketch of a proposal to decolonize the Pronouncing software library5 I used in a simple art project to generate rhymes modeled on those of my favorite rapper.6 So I empathized when I heard Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League speak on wearing a white mask to get her own highly imaginative “Aspire Mirror” project involving facial recognition to perceive her existence.7 Modern technology has rendered literal Frantz Fanon’s metaphor of “Black Skin, White Masks”.8

Facial recognition has diverse applications, but as a police and prison abolitionist, the enhancement of state-controlled surveillance cameras (including police body cameras) to automatically identify people looms much larger in my mind than any other use.9 Researchers at Georgetown University found that fully half of American adults, or over 100 million people, are registered in one or another law enforcement facial recognition database, drawing from sources such as driver’s license photos.10 Baltimore Police used the technology to identify participants in the uprising following the murder of Freddie Gray.11 The US government plans to use facial recognition to identify every airline passenger exiting the United States.12 Machine learning researchers have even reinvented the racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, in a study claiming to identify criminals with approximately 90% accuracy based on their faces alone — using data provided by police.13

I consider it obvious that most if not all data collected by police to serve their inherently racist mission will be severely biased. It is equally clear to me that no technology under police control will be used to hold police accountable or to benefit Black folks or other oppressed people. Even restricting our attention to machine learning in the so-called “justice” system, examples abound of technology used to harm us, such as racist predictive models used by the courts to determine bail and sentencing decisions — matters of freedom and captivity, life and death.14 Accordingly, I have no reason to support the development or deployment of technology which makes it easier for the state to recognize and surveil members of my community. Just the opposite: by refusing to don white masks, we may be able to gain some temporary advantages by partially obscuring ourselves from the eyes of the white supremacist state. The reality for the foreseeable future is that the people who control and deploy facial recognition technology at any consequential scale will predominantly be our oppressors. Why should we desire our faces to be legible for efficient automated processing by systems of their design? We could demand instead that police be forbidden to use such unreliable surveillance technologies. Anti-racist technologists could engage in high-tech direct action by using the limited resources at our disposal to further develop extant techniques for tricking machine learning models into misclassifications,15 or distributing anti-surveillance hardware such as glasses designed to obscure the wearer’s face from cameras.16

This analysis clearly contradicts advocacy of “diversity and inclusion” as the universal or even typical response to bias. Among the political class, “Black faces in high places” have utterly failed to produce gains for the Black masses.17 Similarly, Black cops have shown themselves just as likely as white cops to engage in racist brutality and murder.18 Why should the inclusion of Black folks in facial recognition, or for that matter, the racist technology industry be different? Systemic oppression cannot be addressed by a change in the complexion of the oppressor, as though a rainbow 1% and more white people crowding the prisons would mean justice. That’s not the world I want to live in. We must imagine and build a future of real freedom.

All of the arguments I’ve presented could be (and have been) applied to many domains beyond facial recognition. I continue to grapple with what that means for my own work as a technologist and a political organizer, but I am firm already in at least two conclusions. The first is that despite every disadvantage, we must reappropriate oppressive technology for emancipatory purposes. The second is that the liberation of Black folks and all oppressed peoples will never be achieved by inclusion in systems controlled by a capitalist elite which benefits from the perpetuation of racism and related oppressions. It can only be achieved by the destruction of those systems, and the construction of new technologies designed, developed, and deployed by our own communities for our own benefit. The struggle for liberation is not a struggle for diversity and inclusion — it is a struggle for decolonization, reparations, and self-determination. We can realize those aspirations only in a socialist world.

Nabil Hassein is a software developer and organizer based in Brooklyn, NY.

  8. Frantz Fanon: “Black Skin, White Masks”.↩
  17. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”, Chapter 3, “Black Faces in High Places”.↩
Woman operating an old phone switchboard

A Few Alternative Tools

There are so many open source tools to explore and potentially use if you want to tackle your dependency on extractive corporate technology. Here are a few we want to try out:

Woman operating an old phone switchboard

Social Media

Mastodon – microblogging tool

With Known – blogging and microblogging tool that allows cross-posting to corporate social media – microblogging tool


Open Collective  – transparency and fundraising tools

Group Chat & Calling







Docs, File Sharing, Calendar 


NextCloud (Dana uses and prefers this)

Hosted Email 

Protonmail – must be referred by an existing user

What are you using? What have you tried? As we continue to build out CoLET, we will be sharing our experiences, advice, and favorite tools. In the meantime, check out Indieweb for more.

We Weren’t Ready

As a long-time black radical, I am one of those strange individuals that was actually excited when the election results came in. I’d long been waiting for The Bad Thing to happen that would shake the radical Left up and energize the masses to get up, get involved, and get organized.

As the months rolled on, I feverishly woke from my own semi-slumber and headed out to meeting after meeting in search of groups that were invigorated by this moment. But I found only wild disorganization and enthusiasm-stifling confusion.

After joining and quitting several groups in frustrating succession, I came to the sad realization that

We simply weren’t ready…

It is not one person’s or organization’s fault. A friend of mine used to say, “You have to manage abundance just as much (if not more) than you have to manage scarcity,” and the truth of that statement has been borne out to me greatly in the last few months. From finding adequate meeting space to setting up communication systems to being ready to pounce when there is an opportune moment to strike, I have found a great many groups on the Left severely lacking. While there have definitely been some phenomenal showings, like the airport occupations in response to the travel ban, by and large it seems that a sustained and cohesive uprising is still looking for its get up and go.

Realizing that the “perfect organization” wasn’t just going to present itself to me, I decided to 1) quit or move to the extreme sidelines of the groups that I’d joined, 2) engage in my further political education, and 3) work with others to start my own group.

The Collective for Liberation Ecology and Technology (CoLET) is a new formation focused on addressing some of the infrastructure issues that plague progressive and radical organizations, while also helping to expand the discussion/effort towards technology in the service of environment and true liberation. While we are just getting started, some areas that we already believe radical groups might begin to explore in this political moment are:

  • Mission – What does your group do? Is that apparent/transparent? Is your group focused on the right things for this political moment?
  • Communications – Is your group using Google, Slack, Facebook, and Twitter for revolutionary efforts? Are there alternatives? What are the barriers to moving off non-liberatory platforms?
  • Scale – How/ should you grow your group? Not every organization needs to be a big tent, but those that are need to grow the tent with care. There is no sense inviting people to join a group that is not prepared to truly welcome and onboard them.
  • Space – Where can you meet? Where should you meet?
  • Safety – What policies are in place to ensure safety of the members? How do you deal with internal harassment?
  • Security – Does your group have a security culture around information-sharing? How is that enforced/encouraged?
  • Governance  – How does the group make decisions? Is that transparent?
  • Political Education – What materials and systems are in place to make sure new people understand what is going on and can continue to learn about the group’s political platform?
  • Partnerships – Is your group working in solidarity with any other groups? Why or why not?
  • Fundraising – How does your group raise money? What physical or digital platforms do you use to receive that money and are those platforms aligned with your group’s vision/mission? How is the money used? Is that transparent?

… But We Were Ahead of the Curve

While many of us in radical Left groups are struggling with what to do with the tremendous and often overwhelming influx of people and interest that came our way once the The Bad Thing happened, we have not struggled in understanding this political moment.  We know that what looks like a single, huge earthquake to many people with a newfound radical lens on the world is actually just an aftershock of the many centuries of racist and sexist imperialist/ colonial then capitalist/neoliberal campaigns.

Where this repression and genocide was at dogwhistle levels to so many for so long, we radicals have heard it as a steady drone for decades, if not centuries. In this moment, we need only work on how to be effective at helping others tune into a deeper understanding of what is happening and harness that newfound awareness and energy to spark creativity and struggle on towards liberation.

female mechanics in Senegal

Spring/Summer Brainstorming

From May through July 2017, Lauryl, Dana, and I gathered these unedited ideas and resources in a pirate pad as we began to think through what CoLET would/should be.

Brainstorm and Resources
Name Possibilities 
Something with architecture 
some variation on bldg. new world within shell of old
  • Day One Collective (DOC)
  • The Today Collective 
  • Tools for Another World Institute (TAWI)
  • Institute for Study and Service to Self and Surroundings (ISSSS) first association on reading this is ISIS so maybs not?
  • The Center for Ecology, Technology, and Liberation (CELT)first association: celtics like the sports team/indo-european language
  • Ecology, Technology, Liberation (ETL or The ETL Collective) 
  • Liberation, Ecology, Technology (LET or the LET Collective or  – And this one, starting with liberation may be more powerful too. into this one also for the association – “let” as in “enable”
  • The Cooperative for Liberation, Ecology and Technol0gy) (CoLET) – This acronym name could read as a name, which I like ditto
  • Center for Liberation Ecology Solidarity and Technology (CeLEST)
  • Center for Ecology Liberation Economic Solidarity and Technology  (CELEST)
  • an economy not based on fucking over people/planet 
  • Focus on building stuff/DIY and sharing findings/experience  rather than protest or book club or holding endless panels
  • Transparency around process and output 
  • Working at human scale
“Building tools, skills, and communities for radical interventions. “
* We are a small, Brooklyn-based, community-centered, radical feminist anticapitalistcollective. We work to maintain, develop, extend, and promote tools and documentation for likemminded  groups to communicate and organize. We especially lift up the often overlapping struggles of black people, women, people from the Global South, poor people, indigenous people,  queer/trans people, imprisoned and trafficked people, and those persecuted for their documentation or religious status.Our aim is to contribute to the development and nurturing of digital and ecological commons where people can learn, share, and grow themselves and their communities with dignity and joy.
How do we implement it? NOTES GO HERE!!!
Small group study and practice 
Public installation somewhere – It’s [insert time here] do you know where your data is?
– Classes/workshops
Herb classes
Detoxifying your home, medicine cabinet, kitchen, etc
Fighting class – they have this at The Base and aparently it was very popular (Nabil)
DIY things 
Free as in Freedom: Data audit and setting up new domains
Understanding community land trusts – the nuts and bolts
Understanding cooperatives – starting, leading, joining, 
UNderstanding alternative currencies
  • Brochures/materials, newsletter
  • Crisis intake – dealing outside the system/ mutual aid society 
  • Neighborhood assemblies – enabling registration and voting
Simple website to help people find spaces to meet in NYC- is available for $0.99 is also available for like $32 – seems to have something like this , built with Drupal. We would need a Search function and a Submit function and then a contact email address for all other issues. We could also just do it as a wiki
Suite Tools 
* WordPress
* With BuddyPress provides community aspects, groups and member profiles, but needs some UI/UX
* CiviCRM 
NextCloud – could have collaborative doc, but already has calendar, email client, tasks connected to calendar and more apps are being developed by community.
Electic Embers  VPN for Linux
Eventbrite replacement – invitations and invite management (I think people can use CiviCRM for this)
Other Dreams/Projects
Camille would also like to have a member-run physical space for coworking, social events, and a cooperative gym!!
Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners conference 
Tactical Technical Interventions
  • mail
  • phone
  • document sharing
  • event scheduling 
  • membership managemen
  • shift management
  • Development, documentation, and training. 
(Longer-term vision of having a physical space. Maybe some sort of neighborhood tech clinic)  Without the space, conduct gatherings in spaces within the community. 
Org Structure
Transparent governance and membership – which just means people know how things work, we actually do our best to adhere to that system, and it is clear how to change things . Also clear to know how is involved and how
Well documented communication and tasks
Decisions made collectively – agree, disagree, non-blocking disagreement (not consensus please!!) Agreed
Embracing impermanence (if it doesn’t work out we should have a nice way to dissolve it) very true  this x100; also into the idea of not fetishizing process/structure or ‘organizations’ e.g. only so much as is needed to do the things ur trying to do
Conflict/dissent welcome  (CA has good phrasing around this) again agreed x 100 (lol, agreeing with ur comment about disagreement)
Membership Tiers
Foundation/ Organizing – People that are part of/ work on the core group. I think of the work as being: figuring out strategic direction, coordinating technical efforts, building and nurturing membership, cooperating with likeminded orgs. 
Members – People or Organization that consume the technology/ services and give feedback
Partner Organizations – committed to building platforms and sharing resources
Supporters – People who believe in our mission (I am concerned about non-stakeholders giving money. Will have to think this through) 
I think we’d also have partner orgs like Palante 
Incorporation/Legal Structure 
(contact details of people who could help with this are MUCH appreciated!)
Urban Justice Center
Michael Haber lawyer from Hofstra at the comm. economic development clinic who might be able to find students to support us:
Conflict Resolution
To quote activist Berniece Johnson-Reagon, “If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable….your group is too small.” As practitioners of radical global feminisms, we welcome the discomfort that comes from misunderstanding and disagreement as an indicator that our mission is gaining support and our network is expanding.  We will entertain petitions from dissenting groups and individuals within the community, and use the above-listed principles as our guide as we attempt to understand, mediate, translate, and (when appropriate) resolve conflict. 
Elinor Ostrom principles outlined here –
BYP100 Community Accountability Process documented –
Useful Links:
  • DAWI the folks who may or may not continue working coop network platform from the past 2 years.
  • thanks for sharing!
Values and Principles
  • Another good read – Territory, Presence, & Building a Base of Support ( << thanks for sharing this! especially interested in/curious about how to act out the shift in emphasis from instiutions that claim to ‘represent’ groups to geniuine relationships w/ individuals & w/ groups pushing against the social order
  • Antiracist 
  • Anticapitalist
  • Feminist
  • Ecological
  • Sustainability
  • Permaculture – earth care, people care and fair share
  • Cooperative
  • Communitarian / Focus on community – both local and collaborators
  • Community space (s)
  • Educational- externally and internal 
  • Strategic
  • Technology
  • Scalable
  • Open source
  • User friendly
  • Responsive 
  • Selfcare/ healing
  • Impermanence and imperfection
  • Transparent conflict resolution structure 
  • Loose rule structure see Ostrom
Potential Partners
Center for Family Life
Interference Archive 
Security In A Box –
Cypurr Collective
Open Mastery
Wild Seed Collective
Black Womens Blueprint
Anthony Williams –
Save Our Streets
One People’s Project
It’s Going Down
Art Against Displacement
Data and Society
Progressive Technology Project – (this website is a mess so I am sorta doubtful)
Cooperative Jackson
Plan C UK
West Harlem Environmental Action 

Why CoLET?

Dana, Lauryl, and Camille came together in May 2017 to think about how to carve out a space for technology and technologists within radical and progressive activism.  We all come from the cooperative/solidarity economy space and found that while many activists and organizers were thinking about ways to divest from businesses and practices that harm our communities in the areas of food, fashion, and finance, this conscious consumer behavior rarely extended to the realm of technology.

With our work in this collective, we hope to empower organizers and the communities they struggle alongside to invest in and leverage tools that uplift and protect us all, as we continue to fight.

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