Facial recognition technology : as creepy as it gets

San Francisco is the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition technology for law enforcement purposes and other US cities may follow suit. The San Francisco debate has been ongoing for quite some time. Those supporting the ban underline that facial recognition technology is flawed and a serious threat to civil liberties.

Facial technology is an invasive technology. In its present state of development, it is weak, but it has the potential to be 100 per cent accurate. It can then be used not just for recognition purposes but also for the profiling of those it is aimed at.

Researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China have been experimenting with photographs of criminals and non-criminals. It is being suggested by these researchers that the technology they used can identify criminals from new images with an accuracy of 89.5%. It gets creepier and creepier.

Researchers at Stanford University in the United States have indicated in a preview of a Paper they will be publishing shortly that facial recognition technology “is more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from pictures of people.” In their research, they made use of over 130,000 images taken from dating sites on which people give their sexual orientation. On the basis of the biometric analysis made, it is being claimed that the technology in use can distinguish between gay and heterosexual men in 81 per cent of cases from just one photograph. If the number of photographs increases to five, the accuracy jumps to 91 per cent.

Without any shadow of doubt, many more applications of facial recognition technology will be identified and, when perfected, this technology would be the perfect tool for authoritarian regimes.

Currently, the police in various parts of the United Kingdom are using facial recognition technology for law and order purposes. Civil Liberties NGO Big Brother Watch has identified that in nine out of every 10 cases the wrong person was identified. This resulted in 90 per cent of people being arrested as a result of being wrongly identified. Over time, this would be remedied through the use of a larger database which would be accumulated and available for use with the facial recognition technology.

The issues resulting are manifold. In conjunction with Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the government is planning a Safe Cities project. Three areas have apparently been identified for a pilot project: Marsa, St Paul’s Bay and Paceville.

When interviewed some months ago, Malta’s Data Protection Commissioner emphasised that when considering making use of facial recognition technology, great care should be taken in order that fundamental human rights are not infringed. He rightly stated that it was the government’s duty to carefully study the matter in order to ascertain its effectiveness in addressing criminality. He also spoke on the potential misuse of the accumulated data, as this had the potential of tracing the whereabouts of an individual thereby undermining the right to privacy.

Face recognition technology, like any other technology can be used and abused. It can make us feel safer, but it also has the potential to gnaw at our freedoms, without our realising it. There is certainly great potential but there are also enormous responsibilities.

Having a history of practically useless institutions which, time and again, have not been capable of standing up to those in power, is not a good point of departure. Facial recognition technology has the potential of concentrating too much information (and power) in the hands of the police. This may be very dangerous unless data protection oversight is robust. Investing in our security does not require surrendering our privacy.

In this digital age we require our surveillance to be democratically accountable. Whether and how this is done is still to be seen in a public consultation exercise which will hopefully be carried out. It is, however, essential as the Huawei-police tandem can be lethal to our democracy. The San Francisco solution may be seen as being too radical.

However, until such time that surveillance is subject to democratic accountability, there is no other solution.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 19 May 2019