Facial Recognition Technology Raises Privacy and Mass Surveillance Concerns

In October 2017, the world woke up to news of an incident described in the Guardian as “the deadliest mass shooting” in modern US history. At least 59 people died and over 570 injured when a gunman opened fire on an open-air music festival from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel on the Las Vegas strip. It is in the wake of incidents such as this one that the world is today now more than ever before very keen on investing in all that is humanly possible, including facial recognition technology and mass surveillance in a bid to reduce the risk of terror attacks and other forms of insecurity.

As facial recognition is being implemented to counter terrorism in the name of national security, people are increasingly getting worried that the technology is infringing on their right to privacy, and at the same time ushering in police states. Some governments are however not taking such concerns lightly, for example in Australia, where Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull recently moved in to assure Australians that they would not be under mass surveillance after state and territory leaders agreed to a beefed-up facial recognition system.

Use of facial recognition technology growing amid concerns

Governments are not the only players in the murky waters of the facial recognition technology and in the ongoing global conversation over mass surveillance and the risks therein; we have companies already in it, and many others are just on their way.

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Since August, the German federal police has started a test for surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology to identify volunteers using biometric identifiers at a train station in Berlin. While some privacy advocates believe that such implementations are unlawful and a violation on fundamental rights, others are questioning the real benefits in terms of fighting crime and terrorism. In Moscow, more than 170,000 security cameras are being upgraded with facial recognition technology to conduct image searches to automatically match live footage against billions of photos in police databases and public ones, including social networks like VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook.

Beyond crime fighting, use of facial recognition is gaining currency in the commercial sector as well. In China, major banks such as the Agricultural Chinese Bank have embraced the technology, and gone further to increase the number of ATMs accepting customers’ faces in place of the widely used bankcards to withdraw cash.

Other applications are integrating the technology for purposes of improving service delivery. Yizhibo, a leading livestreaming app in China uses AI, facial recognition for content management. They use it to prevent pornography from being displayed in their platform.

Apple is leading the charge within the mobile telephony arena by incorporating their Face ID technology as a security feature for their family of devices. Their new product in the market, iPhone X, comes with a security feature which will use facial recognition data to unlock the phone and power animated emoji faces capable of tracking the user’s facial movements. Apple’s technology secures the biometric data which does not leave the phone, and works better in unfavorable conditions by using infrared light to illuminate the face when capturing images.

Facial data tools are designed to identify an individual biometrically by comparing live capture or digital image; it simply works by measuring the distances between features such as the eyes, nose and mouth, and running the “facial signature” against a stored record of the person. The facial recognition software is currently undergoing a vigorous improvement phase against the backdrop of debate on its effectiveness and whether its mass surveillance nature is a good fit for all. On the other hand, the technology holds promise for countering terrorism and strengthening digital security systems, especially as artificial intelligence increases the accuracy and efficiency of the technology.

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