The irresolute future of facial recognition

The irresolute future of facial recognition. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP)

Should we fear facial recognition technology?

  • Around the world, there are insufficient laws governing the use of facial recognition technology
  • The growing use of this technology in surveillance has prompted calls for bans and stricter regulation

Have you ever noticed your friends getting tagged automatically after you upload a group picture on Facebook? That’s just one example of facial recognition in action — software that maps, analyzes, and then confirms the identity of a face in a photograph or video.

Its history can be traced back to the 1960s when Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe, an American mathematician and computer scientist, was researching pattern recognition technology.

Bledsoe developed ways to classify faces using gridlines. Even during the experimental and inception phase, the application was able to match 40 faces per hour. Today, it has become one of the most powerful surveillance tools ever made.

Using cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and deep learning (DL), facial recognition identifies human faces. The recognition technology performs two important steps- data acquisition and data matching. This technology is based on a database that has facial information of many people for later comparison.

The recognition technology among others captures images or videos, reads the geometric measurements of the face, calculates a mathematical formula for the captured face, and compares it with the image in the database.

The risk of facial recognition

Undeniably, there’s a long list of benefits facial recognition can offer outside of law enforcement, adding convenience or security to everyday things and experiences. Among others, facial recognition is helpful for organizing photos, useful in securing devices like laptops and phones, and beneficial in assisting blind and low-vision communities.

It can be a more secure option for entry into places of business, fraud protection at ATMs, event registration, or logging in to online accounts.

Yet, naysayers don’t think these benefits are worth the privacy risks, nor do they trust the systems or the people running them. Concerns about that ubiquity, amplified by evidence of racial profiling and protester identification, have caused major companies, including Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft, to put a moratorium on selling their software to law enforcement.

In the US, there’s currently one proposed US law on a federal level banning police and FBI use of facial recognition, as well as another that allows exceptions with a warrant. Still, another bill requires businesses to ask consent before using facial recognition software publicly, and yet another bans its use in public housing.

Separately in Asia, a survey by a Beijing research institute indicates growing pushback against facial recognition in China, BBC reported. As facial recognition systems are being rolled out in stations, schools, and shopping centers across the country, worries about the biometric data being hacked or otherwise leaked were the main concern cited by the 6,152 respondents.

China was ranked the worst of 50 surveyed countries in a study looking at how extensively and invasively biometric ID and surveillance systems are being deployed. In fact, China’s facial recognition system logs nearly every single citizen in the country, with a vast network of cameras across the country.

A database leak in 2019 gave a glimpse of how pervasive China’s surveillance tools are — with more than 6.8 million records from a single day, taken from cameras positioned around hotels, parks, tourism spots, and mosques, logging details on people as young as 9 days old.

The Chinese government is also accused of using facial recognition to commit atrocities against Uyghur Muslims, relying on the technology to carry out “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

In short, there, no one is safe from facial recognition, or the public shaming that comes with it.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the technology is taken for its benefit whereby it will be used by Singapore in its national identity scheme. The first country in the world to adopt it in such a way, the biometric check will give Singaporeans secure access to both private and government services.