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Facial recognition will soon be everywhere. Are we prepared?
Dylan CurranTue 21 May 2019 08.10 ED
Some companies are already testing this new technology, but it raises questions about how surveillance can be abused
San Francisco became the first major city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and government agencies on 14 May.
Imagine this: you walk into work and the camera above the doors scans your face, opening them seamlessly without you lifting a finger. You sit down at your computer and it instantly unlocks. Oh, but you need to run to the pharmacist at lunch. You walk up to a camera, and your prescription is deposited in front of you. You go home from work, a camera blinks, and your door unlocks as your hand touches the handle. You look at your face in the mirror, and it tells you to moisturize. It’s going to be a hot day tomorrow, so it recommends you wear sun-cream. It’ll even order it for you (next-day delivery from Amazon of course). Sounds pretty good right?
Now imagine this: you walk down the street and a pair of policemen stare at you. Their body cameras flash red and they instantly pull their guns and tell you to drop to the ground, you’re under arrest. You comply and after several days in jail, they let you know you were misidentified as a violent criminal on the loose due to the 1.3% margin of error. Regardless of your innocence, you’re in the system. Now wherever you go, cameras that capture you will automatically increase the “danger score” of the area and alert police to watch out for you. Even worse, as you enter stores, the facial recognition system lets the staff know a recently arrested individual has entered the building. They stare suspiciously at you now. Doesn’t sound so good? Facial recognition already has these problems with people of color.
As fantastical as either of those scenarios might seem, it’s quite possible that this will be the future we’re headed towards. Companies have a neverending appetite to use powerful new software to make their customer’s life easier and governments persistently feel the need to misuse emerging technologies for the greater good.
The “benefits” of the technology are already being implemented by airlines, as seen by JetBlue Airways. Rather than scanning a boarding pass or handing over a passport, you simply stare into a camera and you’re verified. The Department of Homeland Security kindly provides their database of citizens’ faces to JetBlue. There’s no opt-in, your face is just handed over. This does save time and optimize processes, but it raises the question: do you have the right to your own face? Who is responsible for the protection of this information? Can I even remove my face from this database and just go the old-fashioned way? We have no idea, and it’s already in airports and being tested in law enforcement.
The downsides of the technology, however, are on full display in China. A reported 200m surveillance cameras around the country are doing everything from tracking shoppers in stores to preventing violent crime to catching jaywalkers. Virtually every citizen of China is in this massive facial database, and your whereabouts are tracked at every junction. Even more troubling, a new Chinese startup can identify citizens anywhere in mere seconds. We all know how little China respects privacy, but can we trust western countries to act any differently? As we’ve seen with the mass surveillance programs run by the NSA and the United Kingdom’s GCHQ, evidently not. In the UK, a man was even recently fined for covering his face while walking past one of these facial cameras.
We humans have the incessant need to make things smoother, better and faster. This desire has helped drive the remarkable progress we have achieved as a society. However, we’ve reached the stage where our technological leaps and bounds no longer save us hours, or even minutes – they shave only seconds from our day-to-day tasks. The costs to our privacy are no longer so clearly outweighed by the benefits this technology can provide.
It’s time to take a step back and ask some necessary questions. We need to discuss whether we actually need widespread facial recognition technology, what sensible legislation looks like and how to ensure law enforcement doesn’t abuse this technology.
If we act now, I believe we can succeed in preventing technology companies from infiltrating every aspect of our lives. If we don’t, though, I fear the worst. Will we live in a future where our location is logged in some unknown database wherever we go? Or a world where political dissidents in a dictatorship have zero chance of maintaining their anonymity. Will citizens walking the streets all around the planet glance at cameras, and nervously wonder if someone, somewhere, just watched their name flash up on a screen?
I hope not. But if we do, we will only have our own inaction and complacency to blame.
Dylan Curran is a data consultant and web developer