Facial Recognition: A Need for Regulation Amidst Government Bans

Over the last few years, facial recognition has increasingly become an important tool in a range of consumer, business, law-enforcement and government applications.

In 2018 Taylor Swift used facial recognition software to identity stalkers at her concerts.

Facial recognition is also commonly used at airports for screening, such as the Canada Border Service Agency’s uses of the technology to improve border security. A similar process is being deployed by the Port of Seattle at Seatac International Airport.

Many people’s laptops and smartphones also now allow the use of facial recognition to login.

However, the dark side and potential pitfalls of facial recognition is justifiably of deep social and civic concern to many.

This summer groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Greenpeace, MediaJustice, among many others, have called for a complete ban on facial-recognition technology for law enforcement, at all levels of government.

Facial recognition is the use of biometric software algorithms capable of uniquely identifying or verifying a person by comparing and analyzing patterns based on the person’s facial features.

Organizations such as these express concern that privacy is being compromised by the use of surveillance technologies. Some fear that it could lead to a Big Brother-style society, where law enforcement, governments and other authorities have the ability to know the whereabouts and activities of citizens at all times.

In light of these concerns, over the past 12 to 18 months, at least nine U.S. cities have banned facial recognition, including Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, and seven Massachusetts cities, including: Somerville, Brookline, Easthampton, Boston, Springfield, Cambridge, and Northampton.

In June, in the midst of a protest movement against the police killings of Black people, IBM made the announcement that it would stop selling, researching, or developing facial-recognition services. Amazon and Microsoft followed with their own announcements that they would not sell facial-recognition services or products to state and local police departments, pending federal regulation.

There’s currently little regulation on what’s acceptable with facial recognition applications.

On a policy level, there are also few general rules outlining what personal data can be collected via facial recognition and on what terms.

Right now the formal use of facial recognition in the public sector has largely been put on hold. It’s important that we take this opportunity to engage in cross-sectoral discussions and draw boundaries for the use of facial recognition tools, processes, applications and of course, policies.

These discussions must be inclusive and involve public policy makers, companies, thought leaders, organizations and of course, a diversity of citizens.

Furthermore, the speed of technology is moving at such a rate that simply banning facial recognition indefinitely will most likely not be an effective solution.

Given the technological advances around facial recognition, there is a risk that if we ban it entirely, the technology industry may find ways to move around it.

For example, today the need to have one’s face present for facial recognition is being technologically surpassed by the use of full-body recognition systems. These full-body recognition systems can identify people by means of their physical characteristics such as height or by their clothing and accessories. These systems are also able to identify a person based on their movements and gestures. So, wearing a wide brimmed hat or a facemask will no longer be an effective deterrent to this detection software.

What’s more, if we ban facial recognition, we may no longer be able to build on current advancements in this field to improve the algorithms that could be of benefit to society.

In fact, in 2018 the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that in a database of 26.6 million photos, only 0.2 per cent of searches failed to match the correct image.  This is a 20 times improvement in only four years when compared with a 4 per cent failure rate in 2014.

As we continue to emerge into a new digital era, the conversations needed right now must focus upon government regulation, not permanently banning facial recognition.

This must be done in collaboration with public policy makers, companies, thought leaders, organizations and citizens to improve upon and draw new boundaries around the use of facial recognition and its data.

Facial recognition can be a powerful and non-invasive technology to make our societies more efficient and safe, but we must be able to have confidence in our governments, law enforcement agencies and companies that our data will be used wisely and reliably, for the benefit of all.

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