Facial recognition technology – Part 3: Controversy and privacy

Written by: Samantha Wolhuter

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Welcome to Part III of our facial recognition article series. If you are late to our article party then don’t stress. You can catch up by reading Part I and Part II before diving into what this article is all about: the rabid controversy and politics surrounding the use of facial recognition software in society.

Recap

In Part 1 we explained what facial recognition software is and how exactly it works. We explained how biometric technology is used in facial recognition to create a unique faceprint of a subject by gathering data from 80 nodal points across the subject’s face. The faceprint is then stored in a database and through deep learning is compared with other faceprints in order to accurately identify an individual.

In Part II we spoke about the uses and benefits of facial recognition software, as well as the current drawbacks of the technology as it stands today. Mobile phone companies like Apple and Samsung use this software for authentication purposes (unlocking the phone) and from this, they can identify you in photographs taken and stored on your phone. MasterCard and Amazon use the software as a method of payment and identification, known as selfie pay. But most importantly, law enforcement and government agencies use facial recognition as a means of surveillance and apprehension of wanted criminals. Governments are beginning to shift from fingerprint databases (with their inherent issues) to faceprint databases. And this is where we begin Part III.

Controversy

Machines are now able to identify us in a crowd. Concerning. What’s even more concerning? Do we know who is operating the machines? An important factor as to why the adoption of this technology by law enforcement and government agencies is being met with much resistance from advocacy and civil rights groups is because of its ability to be used covertly, without the knowledge of the public. As opposed to other biometric tools, such as retina and fingerprint scanners which require interaction with the device from the subject, facial recognition can identify a person from afar without the subject’s consent. And consent is the major issue here.

Privacy of personal data has become a huge talking point in recent years as the technology used by both corporations and governments encroach on our everyday lives. From social media to basic government files, our lives have been digitised and stored into databases. Some of this has been done without the consent of the public, while others have been as a matter of due course. Computer and mobile application’s Terms and Conditions will, by law, inform people about what will happen to their personal data, and most people don’t bother to read this, yet they are the first to complain that their information is being sold to marketing companies feeding off their data.

Civil liberties and advocacy groups have become increasingly outspoken about how facial recognition violates the public’s rights. A few months ago, the UK saw the first court challenge of the use of facial recognition by police for surveillance purposes. The plaintiff stated that the image capture and subsequent use of his faceprint was not consented to and therefore was a violation of his rights. And many people agree that this type of occurrence has the eerie foreboding of George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia.

The general public consensus is in favour of drafting legislation and oversight procedures to manage the use of facial recognition, both in the private and public sector. However, as it stands, no such legislation exists. The US and UK are in the process of drawing up legislation and soon the reigns will be pulled in.

Who owns your facial data?

Law enforcement and government agencies grow their database by feeding mugshots into the system. This is a way of getting a front-on photo of a criminal onto a database. But this doesn’t hit any numbers needed for full surveillance in public areas. Enter social media.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, is an interesting phenomenon. It has millions of users logged into a profile which they willingly add updated photos of themselves, let people know where they are and what they are doing. This is a surveillance agent’s dream. Millions of people across the world have willingly given their online identities over to a private company. To think that this information remains within the digital fortress of a multi-billion dollar company is naive at best. If governments want to increase their facial recognition and faceprint database all they have to do is get it from Facebook.

Amazon shareholders recently voted to reject two separate proposals which would have called to ban the sale of facial recognition software to government agencies. After being asked if the company has worked with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services (AWS) said: “Any government department that’s following the law, we will serve them”.

What’s next?

Facial recognition technology is widely used today and will continue to be pervasive in the future. There is simply no way around it. So in order for people to be okay with its use a few things need to happen, starting with proper legislation and regulation. Only once the limitations are clearly defined, can people’s civil rights be protected. The second is around consent: only when people have consented will the use of their data be permissible. If not, in the case of law enforcement, warrants will need to be issued to retrieve the personal data of each person. Seeing as this technology has become so contentious we think it’s worth keeping a close eye on it. We certainly will!

Read the other two parts of the series:

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Last modified: February 4, 2021
Author info
Samantha Wolhuter
Sam is in charge of writing a big portion of WeAreBrain’s creative content. She is a digital nomad always on the go, inspiring us with her words from some of the world's most beautiful locations.
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