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False Identification: One Woman’s Facial Recognition Nightmare

Government security officials and the ACLU stay mum, despite repeated requests for information, involvement in the Pennsylvania woman’s case

After attending a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on January 6, a Pennsylvania woman has told media, she has been interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and visited by the FBI. She and her daughter have both been subjected to repeated security screenings before boarding flights.

Federal security officials have reportedly claimed that facial recognition technology and anonymous reports place the woman inside the Capitol Building, among those who entered illegally on January 6. She insists she never went near the Capitol, let alone engaged in any illegal activity.

Repeated inquiries from Mind Matters News to the DHS and FBI about their targeting of the woman and her daughter have been ignored.

So have inquiries to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which thus far appears uninterested in the case. Officials with the national ACLU as well as the ACLUs of New Jersey and Pennsylvania have failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.

At the center of this surveillance nightmare is Dana Kurtbek, a 54-year-old woman from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. On January 6, she attended the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C. As a supporter of the Trump administration, she wanted to witness the day’s events first-hand. She stood in the cold, listened to former President Donald Trump address the crowd, interacted with other rally-goers, and then walked back to her car in Georgetown.

Through the course of the morning, Kurtbek remained around the Ellipse (pictured), a large park roughly 1.2 miles from the Capitol Building where the main events of the rally were held.

Trump’s speech ended just after 1 PM. It was so cold that slotted speakers cancelled out and the crowd dispersed. “So we just left,” Kurtbek told Mind Matters News. “We turned around and we walked with hundreds of other people wandering the streets. We all just walked wherever. People went to buses, to cars. We happened to walk to Georgetown.”

Georgetown is northwest of the National Mall in the opposite direction from the Capitol Building.

“I could see the Capitol,” she explained, recalling standing in the Ellipse, “but I couldn’t throw a baseball at the Capitol. I was very far away.”

Nonetheless, facial recognition technology, evidently being used by federal agencies, identified her as being inside the Capitol Building among hundreds of protesters who breached the doors that day.

On Monday, January 22, upon returning to the United States from a Mexican vacation with her daughter, Kurtbek was detained by the Department of Homeland Security. On landing at the Newark Liberty International Airport, she and her daughter were ushered into separate interrogation rooms by DHS officers. Kurtbek had been stopped for additional screening on both of her flights into and out of Mexico but at the time she had just attributed it to bad luck.

Then the situation turned far more serious.

“The officer informed me that due to facial recognition I have been flagged as a participant in the DC domestic terrorist attack on the capitol,” she wrote in a Facebook post that made the rounds through social media, resulting in an exclusive story (February 2) with The Post Millennial.

In an interview with Mind Matters News, Kurtbek gave what details she could remember of the claim that facial recognition technology was involved in her detention.

“I didn’t really believe him,” she said, because if the DHS officer’s claim was true, “then it’s the worst facial recognition software on the planet because I wasn’t there.”

She told the officers that she did attend the rally but that she never approached or entered the Capitol Building. She also explained that her daughter did not attend the rally and hadn’t even been in D.C. that day.

The officers eventually let her and her daughter go.

Four days later, however, FBI agents knocked on her front door. According to them, two anonymous reports identified her as one of the protesters inside the Capitol Building. They left after some additional questioning, assuring her that she shouldn’t have any more issues.

Despite the assurances, Kurtbek’s daughter, who regularly travels for work, is still experiencing repercussions even though she was not involved in any of the events in D.C. on January 6. According to Kurtbek, her daughter has been pulled in four times by TSA for extra screening, most recently on Sunday, January 31.

According to Kurtbek, the DHS officers at the Newark airport told her several times that “because the current administration has deemed this a domestic terrorist attack, we basically can do whatever we want to do.”

“And that’s very scary to hear,” she added.

Kurtbek now wonders if neighbors or others in her community who disagree with her views reported her activities to the federal government.

“They have every right to their view as I do,” she said, “but they don’t have the right to anonymously report me to the FBI and disrupt my life. And that’s what they did.”

Kurtbek is a well-traveled woman. She spent a semester studying abroad in Poznan, Poland, in 1986. She was on a flight to Poland the same day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, a day she says she’ll “never forget.” She got a chance to see the countries of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet Union rule before the fall of the Iron Curtain. In April of that year, during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Kurtbek and her classmates had to escape Poland via a stranger driving a Volkswagen Beetle after the Communist government denied them exit visas.

She also spent ten years living in Turkey, which in recent years has been suppressing freedom of expression. It is described by Human Rights Watch as a country “experiencing a deepening human rights crisis over the past four years.”

“So I’ve lived in countries that have very dominant ruling governments that can be scary,” she said. “And I never thought America was like that. And apparently I was very naïve in that. I always thought that America was different, and I don’t believe that anymore.”

Kurtbek’s story of facial recognition technology used by the Department of Homeland Security, of neighbors reporting her nonviolent political activities to federal authorities, and of the consequences her daughter is experiencing are eerily reminiscent of the far harsher conditions in China. In a follow-up article, I will explore China’s dark technocracy, in which its citizens are under constant surveillance by facial recognition technology.

Kurtbek explained that this experience has changed her perspective. “It really just saddens me that the government would use their strength to attempt to basically bully its citizens into compliance,” she said, “and that’s how I feel.”

“As I’ve said before,” she continued, “I’ve been in countries where that actually happens, but that happens blatantly, which I guess on some levels is better. Here, it’s quite hidden. And my concern is, if this could happen to me, if they could do what they just did to me — and I don’t mean me as a Republican or me as a Democrat, I mean me as an American citizen — they could do it to anybody.”


You may also wish to read: Leaked Police Database: Total Surveillance of China’s Uyghurs. Human Rights Watch notes that many countries engage in human rights abuses, but “more than any other government, Beijing has made technology central to its repression.” (Heather Zeiger)


Caitlin Bassett

Caitlin Bassett is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture. Her interests are in political philosophy and current events, and she enjoys attempting to understand physics and cosmology. She graduated from Liberty University in 2017 with her Bachelor’s in Politics and Policy.

False Identification: One Woman’s Facial Recognition Nightmare