Facial recognition, why worry?
Facial recognition technology is spreading fast. Already widespread in China, software that identifies people by comparing images of their faces against an archival database is being adopted throughout much of the world. It is common among police forces but has also been used in airports, train stations, and shopping malls.
The rapid growth of this technology has sparked a much-needed debate. Activists, politicians, academics and even police forces are expressing serious concerns about the impact facial recognition could have on a political culture based on rights and democracy.
Human rights concerns
This has a deterrent effect on our democratic culture
Widespread surveillance can deter individuals from attending public events. It can hinder participation in political demonstrations and campaigns for change. And it can discourage non-compliant behavior.
This deterrent effect is a serious violation of the right to freedom of assembly, association, and expression.
There is a lack of detailed and specific information on how facial recognition is actually used. This means that we do not have the possibility to consent to the recording, analysis, and storage of our images in databases.
By denying us the opportunity to consent, we are denied choice and control over the use of our own images.
Reliability of this technology
Facial recognition technology promises accurate identification. But many studies have shown that algorithms trained on racially biased data sets misidentify people of color, particularly women of color.
Such algorithmic bias is of particular concern if it leads to illegal arrests or if it leads public agencies and private companies to discriminate against women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
If people using facial recognition software mistakenly believe that technology is infallible, it can lead to poor decisions. This “automation bias” must be avoided.
The results generated by the machine should not determine how state agencies or private companies treat individuals. Trained human operators must exercise meaningful control and make decisions based on the law.
Databases containing our facial images must sound the alarm. They involve private companies and law enforcement agencies sharing our images to build watch lists of potential suspects without our knowledge and consent.
This is a serious threat to our individual rights and civil liberties. The security of these databases and their vulnerability to the actions of hackers is also of concern.
Facial recognition technology can be used for widespread surveillance. But it can also be deployed selectively, for example, to identify migrants and refugees.
The sale of facial recognition software to agencies such as the highly controversial US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is highly criticized for its tactics in dealing with migrants, should be of concern to all those concerned with human rights.
With so many concerns about facial recognition technology, we desperately need a further conversation about its impact on our rights and civil liberties. Without proper regulation of these systems, we risk creating dystopian police states in once free and democratic countries.