The rise of facial recognition technology and the erosion of privacy

In the 2002 movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character has his eyes surgically replaced so he can avoid being identified by the all-pervasive retina scanning system that the state uses to track people… and of course, uses to show targeted ads to people. This is a rather dystopian view of the broad application of biometrics technology.  However, judging by a lawsuit targeting Macy’s for their use of Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology in their stores, it seems that staying anonymous in the bricks and mortar world is becoming a little more like the movie. Whilst you may not require surgery, you may soon require something akin to glasses and a fake beard to avoid being tracked. The issue here is that Clearview AI has been scraping images from publicly viewable sources on the web for a while, enabling them to create a database of facial biometrics against which to match captured facial images. Amongst the sources of this data are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Vimeo, with some of these companies having sent cease and desist letters to Clearview AI for breach of their terms of service.  The aim it seems is for Clearview AI to create a one-to-many facial recognition solution that can identify an individual from only an image of their face from anyone who is in a photo or video on the web.  Based on a report on Buzzfeed, they were working with over 2000 companies as of February 2020, and they are probably not alone, so perhaps we should be concerned.

Increased use is inevitable but there are risks

Given that facial recognition technology is inevitably going to get better and cheaper, without controls in place it seems likely that many types of institution and business will increasingly seek to adopt it to gain a competitive edge. Law-enforcement agencies are already using facial recognition technology as they believe it enables them to be more effective at tackling crime, without the need to dramatically increase police numbers. This has proven to be controversial, with concerns being raised around privacy, bias in the models, lack of transparency and misuse.  Such has been the level of concern that several large tech companies have decided to step away from law enforcement facial recognition contracts in the short term. 

Bricks and mortar retailers, who are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the likes of Amazon, will almost certainly be attracted to facial recognition tech to track customers’ behaviour in physical stores.  They are likely to do this in a way that is similar to how advertisers track people in the online world, in order to micro-target products and services to them. As ad companies track users between sites and apps in the virtual world, we can expect facial recognition to be used to track customers from store to store in the physical world.  If we have learnt anything in the last 20 years about the internet and technology, it is that “surveillance capitalism” makes for a very attractive business model.

It is not difficult to imagine that in the near future, tech companies will be tracking our faces through a myriad of devices such as in-home smart devices, camera enabled doorbells, and domestic and commercial security solutions.  All of this with us having given consent, however blindly, when signing up for some online service or other.  Maybe you consent to let a transit system’s cameras track you, to optimise your mobility as a service (MaaS) app’s ability to understand your travel patterns to reduce your journey time and reduce your travel costs, but the data they collect is also packaged and sold for ad personalisation.

If we are tracked going to shops and rock concerts etc., this is perhaps, no big deal; but tracking us if we attend support groups, political rallies or protests starts to be problematic.  Of course, much of this can already be done today as our phones often know where we are, and mapping services know what is at that location. However, with our phones we still have some control, we can turn our phones off, but this is not the case if we are tracked using someone else’s devices.

The price of free

There is the tension that we see in the online world today.  You are tracked so that the services you receive are better, and the advertising is more appropriate for you and more lucrative for the likes of Facebook.  However, that same tracking can result in undesirable outcomes.  You are served information, products and services that match your profile, but as we have seen, this can lead to what you see online being limited to what benefits the advertiser.  When Facebook shows you news, does the algorithm choose the article that best informs you, or the one that keep you the most engaged on their platform.  These outcomes can surely be balanced but it seems that often they are not. 

Commercial companies tend to move towards what is profitable, so it is likely that broad facial recognition initiatives will move towards enabling additional tracking and profiling.  Profiling and tracking can be misused, and with facial recognition perhaps enabling a more granular and pervasive level of tracking, the impact of any misuse could be great. It seems unlikely that the free market alone will not solve for this tension in a way that mitigates the risk of misuse and the potential damage to the perception by society of the broad use of facial recognition technology.

The time is now for balanced regulation

Macy’s are being sued over their use of facial recognition technology without consent.  It seems that we are coming to an inflection point, past which how facial recognition technology is perceived will start to be set for good, or ill. To ensure that this technology finds its place in society and does not just become another facet of “surveillance capitalism” action is required. Perhaps it is only by implementing sensible regulation, determined by government, technology stakeholders and civil society that we can balance societal good and the rights of the individual with the desire to allow, and indeed enable, innovation in facial recognition and profiling.  This technology has the potential to be transformative. Virologists are starting to suggest that significant viral threat may become the new normal, and contact tracing could see a huge step up in effectiveness if a facial recognition system were implemented to determine with whom you have been in significant contact.  Facial recognition is also being introduced to speed up the boarding process at airports. However, this powerful potential for identification and tracking also presents society with significant risks and raises concerns.

This calls for a risk averse approach to facial recognition technology, similar maybe to that which has been implemented for self-driving cars.  Perhaps, we should start by allowing limited public use but enable sandboxed experimentation, and as solutions are proven adapt the regulations appropriately to enable their implementation.  Unfortunately, regulators tend to struggle to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technologies such as facial recognition, and how they are used, meaning that implementing such regulation well, will be difficult.

Increasingly, the benefits of technical innovations, such as facial recognition, will have to be balanced against the rights of the individual, and their benefits and risks to society through regulation; but as such technologies become pervasive, finding this balance becomes more difficult and contentious. To ensure this balance is found, innovation is enabled and privacy is protected, well-conceived regulations and frameworks must be implemented and evolve alongside the technology to guide it. However, this can only be done well if a significant body of stakeholders comes together.  Unfortunately, whilst technologists are great at collaborating to develop innovative solutions, civil society has so far proven to be poorly equipped to put appropriate controls in place when needed as new technology emerges, and this asymmetry in effectiveness tends to either allow space for abuse or unduly limit innovation.

About Consult Hyperion

Consult Hyperion helps institutions navigate how best to utilise identification technology by considering the intersection of technology, individual privacy, commercial requirements, and regulation.

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