There is an ongoing discussion both in online and offline spaces regarding the growth of facial recognition technology and its implications on privacy and human rights. As the technology that allows both the government and private entities like businesses to spy on citizens becomes commonplace, many have raised concerns on the potential of the system to be used in violations of people’s right to privacy and how this can heighten the existing tension between marginalized individuals and law enforcement.
It is, however, essential to characterize that in most cases, facial recognition technologies are used out of good intentions. The problem is that while it is helpful in so many aspects of human lives, it is also available to people with ill intent and criminal minds, more so, it is also accessible to any authoritarian government’s disposal.
Human rights activists have warned that the premise behind facial recognition technology is problematic in itself. Organizations that have access to it can track and recognize people without their consent. As the technology grows every day, privacy advocates are afraid that existing regulations to control and direct the power that comes from it cannot keep up with the pace with which it is growing and could have devastating effects.
“Unless we really rein in this technology, there’s a risk that what we enjoy every day — the ability to walk around anonymous, without fearing that you’re being tracked and identified — could be a thing of the past,” said Neema Singh Guliani, the American Civil Liberties Union’s senior legislative counsel.
The use of facial recognition technology is not as uncommon as one can think. Many government institutions and businesses have already started using it for their benefit. Taylor Swift uses it at her concerts to spot potential stalkers, with cameras hidden in kiosks for selfies. It’s being used in schools in Sweden to mark attendance and at airports in Australia for passengers checking in. Supermarkets in the UK are using it to determine whether customers are old enough to buy beer. Millions of photos uploaded onto social media are being used to train facial recognition without people’s consent.
The privacy concerns with facial technology are obvious: nothing is more “personal” than one’s face. But it seems that governments around the world are downplaying the possible risks of unregulated use of facial recognition technology. Without any legal restrictions, companies can use facial recognition without limits. That means that they will be able to create a massive database of people’s faces without telling them that data based on space between their nose and their mouth is being collected.
But, isn’t it the same as collecting fingerprints and other identification data for the purpose of law enforcement and legal databases? No, not necessarily.
While traditional identification databases like the fingerprint database that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is collating is indeed a compilation of people’s data, the processes of collecting fingerprints and DNA are well regulated, and consent is an integral part of the procedure – either the consent comes from the individual or the court – not to mention that not everyone has access to the fingerprint and DNA testing technologies. It is an entirely different story when data can be collected even just by getting into a store or walking down the streets unknowingly.
Amid the volatility of the technology and the compounding risks associated with the unregulated use of facial recognition, it is empirical for both the government and the manufacturers to police the usage of this innovation. Alarmingly, facial recognition providers are not even checking on their customers to make sure that they don’t abuse the use of the data it collects properly and ethically – no law requires them to.
Regulating facial recognition technology is a shared responsibility between the government and those that produce them. While governments should be able to create clear guidelines and rules on how technology can and should be used, it is also the duty of the tech companies to make sure that the technology they sell are ethical and could not be passed on to the wrong hands – that bias does not exist and that only those who use technology with good intentions can purchase them.
If governments recognize the need to regulate illegal drugs because they can become harmful to the people and society, governments should also acknowledge that while the road to normalization of facial recognition technology is paved with good intentions, risks and problems are present, and they should be addressed.