Recognizing the Risk


Ever since the iPhone X came out in 2017, we have all become familiar with the concept of facial recognition technology. iPhone X users can now simply look into their phones’ front cameras and, like magic, unlock their devices. But our phones are not the only devices keeping track of our facial features. Facial recognition technology is now becoming increasingly prevalent in airports, hotels, concert venues, and even local supermarkets. In recent decades, facial recognition technology has become integrated into airport security. High-speed 3-D face capture technology can scan the faces of thousands of people every day at airport terminals. Cameras with this technology take pictures of passengers getting ready to board a flight and create maps of their faces. These face-maps can then verify the identity of passengers as they are matched with previously taken images of the passengers. While facial recognition technology may allow passengers to breeze through the plane-boarding process by making bag checking and boarding much more efficient, it raises serious questions regarding privacy, consent, and potential abuse.

Fingerprint scanning and eye tracking have long been used as biometric identification methods, but, unlike facial recognition, they do not raise concerns about surveillance. Facial recognition technology allows the government and private agencies to create databases with photos of millions of people. These photos can then be used to recognize people of interest in real time. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security is already assembling a biometric database called Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology. The National Security Agency stores the faces of millions of people from the Internet, primarily from social media sites like Facebook. This is especially concerning because it means that merely posting a picture online enables government agencies to track a person’s every move.

Proponents of facial recognition technology argue that constructing and maintaining a facial recognition database will keep people safe by allowing the government to more easily keep tabs on people of interest, primarily criminal suspects. It may also allow the government to better identify someone involved in shoplifting or running a red light. At the same time, however, the technology also threatens every individual’s rights and freedoms. Matt Cage, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says that the technology “provides [the] government with unprecedented power to track people going about their daily lives.

That’s incompatible with a healthy democracy.” If facial recognition becomes widely used throughout American cities and businesses, it will become hard for one to stay secret in public. People will not feel comfortable stepping out of the house to perform daily tasks, much less attending events such as political protests. Privacy will consequently become a foreign concept of the past.

Facial recognition technology also gives rise to questions about consent. As with DNA sequencing, this technology records biological data. There are several questions surrounding the ethicality of facial recognition technology: who has the right to use this data and for what purpose? And just like other biometrics, wouldn’t it be wrong to record this information without receiving an individual’s consent first? Shouldn’t only those who have agreed to having their faces scanned and catalogued be eligible to have this technology used on them?

The power to surveil that comes with facial recognition technology also comes with the potential for abuse. Cameras with facial recognition abilities could be misused to target certain groups, such as immigrants or low-income communities. Mr. Cage of the ACLU claims that such a case already exists in China, where facial recognition is being used to monitor the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group. Software like this is crucial to the Chinese government’s classified and privy cameras to single them out based u p o n t h e i r appearance and keep track of their whereabouts. This allows police and law enforcement to specifically target Uighurs, which could pave the way for an era of “automated racism.” Minorities are also affected simply by the way facial recognition applications are programmed. Studies have shown that facial recognition programs, such as Rekognition by Amazon, as well as other programs from IBM and Microsoft, are much better at identifying white male faces as opposed to female faces or faces of people of color. The ACLU and other nonprofit organizations have called on these companies to stop selling their facial recognition technology because it could result in incorrect identification of criminal suspects and unwarranted arrests, perpetuating stereotypes that already exist in law enforcement.

Facial recognition poses another threat: security. Not only have hackers attempted to gain access to massive databases of faces, but companies have accidentally leaked them. For example, in China, a company called SenseNets left a database unprotected and available for the world to see. The database, notably used to track the Uighur population, contained many pieces of personal information (such as birthdays, addresses, employers, gender, location data, nationality, and more) as well as photos of some 2.5 million Chinese citizens being tracked. Such leaks pose a threat to public security, and companies should do better to protect such personal information. With the increasing prevalence of facial recognition technology to perform more and more everyday tasks, hacks and leaks may pose a serious threat to the public.

Currently, several concerns regarding privacy, consent, and the potential for abusing stored information surround facial recognition technology. Given its many flaws, facial recognition technology and the policies surrounding it clearly need to be improved if they are to be incorporated into society on a larger scale in the future. This is not to say that we should simply disregard the technology altogether, as it certainly has benefits when it comes to keeping people safe. What the global community should do, however, is to continue to improve facial recognition technology and propose policies and legislation preventing its abuse and misuse; this would allow the global community to use it more effectively it to its advantage without having to compromise on the right to privacy and other basic liberties that should be afforded to every citizen of the world.

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