Mar 6, 2021

Balancing Safety and Privacy with the Acceleration of Facial Recognition Technology

Genevieve Montague

n the Spielberg movie, Minority Report, there is a scene where Tom Cruise's character walks through a shopping mall while facially activated hologram ads compete for his attention.

The film's main plot revolves around the idea that murders can be stopped before they are committed, thanks to society's ability to see into the future. Right now, it doesn't feel so far fetched that this kind of reality is too far away from us.

Okay, the mutated humans known as "precogs" who predict the murders may be a bit of a stretch. Still, the facial recognition part is well upon us. While some will have no problem with this and be supportive of its potential applications, others will be quite rightly worried about yet another invasion into our privacy.

Racially Biased Tech

Aside from the very grave privacy issues that facial recognition brings, a more significant concern right now is that the technology employed is racially biased. This is because the systems have been trained using mostly white faces, meaning that the same systems are much less effective at correctly identifying black people.

There has been a tremendous amount of tension in the past year over the unjust killings of black men and women in the United States. And it is not a huge leap to see how the misidentification of a law-abiding person of color with a criminal could quickly escalate into yet another senseless murder.

Conscious of facial recognition systems' propensity to make mistakes in this fundamental facet of its use, some major tech companies, including Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM, have all announced that they will be withholding this tech from police departments in the US.

The New Normal

The global facial recognition industry is currently worth just under $5 billion. This figure is expected to double to almost $10 billion by 2025.

A big part of this growth is thanks to the way authoritative regimes employ this tech to control its citizens better. Countries like Russia and China commonly use facial recognition technology to monitor crowds at gatherings and protests. And this is now becoming the norm in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom too.

Defenders of the authorities' use of facial recognition will claim that its use helps police identify criminals. Still, the tech is indiscriminately recognizing the faces of all the people at these gatherings, not just those who may have committed any crimes.

What happens to the images taken of those who have not committed any crimes? Who has access to the data that facial recognition harvests? And how on earth can this be taking place with the consent of those who are being filmed?

The Orwellian imagined state answer would be that why should you worry about any of these questions if you have done nothing wrong?

The worry is that this kind of attitude that dismisses serious ethical concerns is increasingly prevalent. Actions that impinge on our privacy are carried out daily by governments all over the world without a second thought.

As the meme that has been making the rounds says all too well: Make Orwell Fiction Again.

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