Monitoring and surveillance technologies are not a new concept, in fact the law enforcement has been using different methods to monitor people for years, however with the recent developments regarding AI and machine learning the change is in; who is watching behind the screen and it is: computers.
Lately with the buzz created by big companies, facial recognition technology gained some momentum like it is the next new big thing, but in fact it has been around since 2009. The software has been built to identify a person by using a verification system of the said person’s digital image stored in a database, it examines the features of the individuals’ face and then matches that to the images that it already has.
“Autonomous Facial Recognition” is a system looking at images with a computer vision. Apple’s Face ID and social media giants’ usage of “Face Filters” are some of those examples. These systems are designed by humans which an algorithm processes images and uses machine learning to analyze those by cross referencing the image to other data sources. Recent developments of the facial recognition technology using the AI built within, can also make predictions of human behavior while identifying the individual, such as whether the individual is more likely to cause a problem or more likely to commit a crime, etc. Today; the technology can identify a person in a crowd in real time as well as track its movements, detect emotions and predict behavior.
The government officials and law enforcements started using the technology for security and surveillance reasons all around the world as of now.
In Madison Square Garden, an entertainment arena which is a home to most of the big performances in New York City, the tech has been used to scan individuals to find the “problem” attendees, and the public was not aware of the said utilization. In 2001 at Super Bowl XXXV the tech has been used again and resulted with 19 people identified as holding criminal records. US Customs and Border Protection uses the tech to screen non- US residents on international flights and TSA plans. US government published plans to use the tech in airport security for further and larger surveillance and identification.
In the UK the tech was used at the Champion’s League soccer final in Cardiff which resulted with the first arrest in the UK using facial recognition and again at the music festival Download, the public was not aware of the utilization.
China used the tech in a music concert through the security cameras, there were approximately 50.000 people on the concert and the individual who was wanted by police for economic crimes has been identified and then arrested. The tech has been used again in a beer festival which resulted with the arrests of 25 wanted individuals. They started to test the tech by implementing it to glasses with built-in facial recognition, and it has been resulted with 26 individuals being identified for traveling under a false identity and 7 suspects captured and arrested. China also uses the tech regularly to shame jaywalkers, the CCTV’s in the country captures the images of jaywalkers and then reflect their images on to a big screen to “shame” them to the public.
Singapore wants to install cameras and built in facial recognition tech to 110.000 lamp posts around the city to easily keep tabs on its citizens and visitors.
The utilization of the tech for surveillance is significant although with companies such as; Apple, Facebook, Amazon and others giving their users the option to use their faces for security, privacy, payment or just for entertainment, the technology started to have a permanent place in users’ daily lives through their smartphones, smart watches, gaming consoles and basically any and every smart device that has a camera that the user has access to.
Some of the companies did not wait long to exploit the perks of facial recognition for commercial purposes, such as Alibaba a Chinese tech and e-commerce company trying to make “smile to pay” happen. KFC in China already uses that technology for their customers; paying with a smile. All the customer has to do for making a payment, is to smile to a facial recognition built in camera, the aim of this method of payment is to replace cards and phones, making it more “convenient and easy” for customers to pay.
Facebook and Microsoft has a software built to identify faces and then tagging them to pictures, Facebook has been using that technology on its social media platform for years and helping users to quickly tag their friends to pictures. Apple with their newly launched phones made Face ID something the users are very familiar with. Some vehicle manufacturers are trying to make a system so that the user can unlock the vehicle by their face. Even though surveillance is the largest area of utilization for facial recognition right now, the improvements and upgrades made by tech companies for different areas of implementation found numerous ways for efficient use of the technology, so that the users require nothing other than their faces to; use the apps, pay, unlock their devices or vehicles, etc. It is estimated that in the near future no one will require an ID card but just our faces will be enough to do anything.
The facial recognition has a lot of advantages; not requiring a card or even money seems convenient and easy for most people, having fun with the camera, payments made with smile, unlocking our phones with just our faces appears like we are moving more and more forward with technological developments, but the unfortunate part is that the technology is far from perfect and even with all the imperfections, it has already been blindly used to falsely identify people through surveillance. The aim is to protect the citizens and monitor criminal behavior and making the enforcement process easier, but that does not change the fact that the technology is biased.
The facial recognition system is basically the identification of a person by their photo in the data base through making an evaluation, but as humans there are more variables into the story when we are identifying someone; such as their characteristics, personality, their voice, their smell and so on. The tech needs to put those variables to their system to be as good as identifying and evaluating a person like a human could. But even humans are biased and could falsely identify people, recent studies showed that a lot of people cannot accurately differentiate between two people of color. The software used on the facial recognition programs are no different and generally 15% wrong to identify people of color, which makes the tech biased regarding certain group of people. The scary part is that once a person is identified through the system that person is branded by the system as a “problem or criminal individual” and saved to the data base as it is, and because the data is their face, it will be hard to get rid of its negative effects. We cannot leave our faces at home like our devices, and we carry our faces everywhere. In the future that could make finding a job or buying a house harder for those individuals; because although the system falsely identified a person through facial recognition, that false data will still be on the system, making the individual perceived as a troubled person.
Amazon is making a facial recognition program “Rekognition” and in its test which resulted with 28 false matches, it tried to identify every member of congress against a collection of mug shots, the incorrect results were again for the people of color. The bias is not very different than the human stereotyping and profiling in police stations and governments happening today but Amazon is also selling this biased technology to the law enforcement and even the employees are not pleased with this development. The intentions of the company is to reunite the abducted children with their families and stop human trafficking, but the false identification and bias would do more harm than good.
The technology has its faults but the developers and engineers are trying to solve those problems. When Apple first introduced the Face ID people were not sure that how the technology will perform under the situations such as; someone trying to open the phone with the users face while the user is sleeping or unconscious. For those security purposes the phone requires the user to be awake and willing to open the phone. They are trying to perfect the system so that it can understand human emotion like “wanting to unlock the phone” and not unlocking it on under duress situations. But for the technology to work it should be “always on” at the end this is a system that will be impossible to close or turnoff, so the user may never know when their face is used to enhance or for perfecting the experience, which will probably result with the user being “always watched”.
The governmental and commercial utilization of the facial recognition technology without transparency and the unawareness of the public, started raising questions and thoughts that maybe we are not so far away from the dystopian future described on 1984 by George Orwell and in fact “The Big Brother is watching.”
Our faces is our most important data and the biggest concern the facial recognition system poses is that we do not know how much data there is, when is that data being collected, who is collecting and processing it, where is it stored or is it being shared with third parties, etc. There is no international rules that requires the law enforcement or companies to notify the people that they are conducting the facial recognition system. Recent studies showed that almost half of the Americans’ faces are already in the data base, without their consent or knowledge. Some of the US states has their own set of rules but after the Madison Square Garden event, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres introduced a bill that aims to bring a transparency to the utilization of biometric technology, his concerns are as he putted “What could begin as a security measure could easily evolve into something else. Once data is retained it can be readily repurposed for profit. I’m concerned about the commercialization of private data.” The bill would require the businesses to post signs giving notice of their surveillance activities, making the process a little more transparent. But according to a recent survey Americans favor the utilization of facial recognition technology if it increases public safety, benefits law enforcement, reduces shoplifting or speeds up airport security lines without even knowing when their faces are being watched.
Recent regulations protecting our privacy and data shall also be considered for the facial recognition systems. Everyday a new data breach is happening and the regulators and enforcers are trying to implement the Data Privacy Regulations such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation to everywhere that data has been collected and processed, whereas our faces still being used without our knowledge and consent. The government is using the technology to prevent terrorism and ensuring the safety of their citizens but we should still consider whose interests do these particular technologies serve and at whose expense do they come? While our security is important is it really worth risking our privacy?
“Our legal systems are largely based on human judgment and there will be risks associated with replacing that judgment with algorithmic efficiency.”
Frank Konkel, Nextgov, “Survey: Americans Warmin to Use of Facial Recognition Tech”
Dani Deahl, The Verge, “Suspect caught in China at music concert after being detected by facial recognition technology”
Lizzie Davey, AXEL, “Facial Recognition Technology and What It Means for Data Privacy and Protection”
James Frew,”How Facial Recognition is Invading your Privacy”
Rob Lever, “As facial recognition use grows, so do privacy fears”
Diana Budds, “Facial recognition is becoming one of the 21st century’s biggest public space issues”
Melissa Locker, “Singapore wants to add face-recognition surveillance to 110,000 lamp posts”
Dj Pangburn, “A New York City lawmaker is taking on companies that mine your face”
Author: Begüm Aksoy