By Logan Aviles
Big Brother is watching you.
Governments across the globe are currently expanding their facial recognition technologies. With decreasing accountability and transparency, facial recognition could pose numerous threats.
There’s no question that facial recognition has taken the private and public sector by storm. It’s beginning to be used everywhere — from airports, to shopping malls, border patrol, and especially law enforcement. Moreover, a recent research report projected that the facial recognition industry will grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024 in just the U.S. alone. These technologies function by creating a “facial signature,” measuring the dimensions of a human face and placing its unique dimensions into a data set. These data sets are often used by law enforcement agencies to identify and locate criminals.
But the technology has still drawn some well-placed skepticism. One could cite the lack of federal regulation as a source of concern. Even assuming that the technology is accurate and effective, there still isn’t enough transparency (or, in some cases, accountability) for how that data will be used, interpreted, and applied in law enforcement efforts. There’s no clear authority in place that could put private companies and law enforcement agencies on the right track.
Further, the usage of facial recognition within China has proven just how severe an impact the technology can have on privacy and democracy. With over 500,000 faces scanned per month, China uses its facial recognition technology to profile and keep tabs on Uyghur Muslims under the pretext of security. These systems identify minorities so that they may be better tracked and surveilled by Chinese surveillance systems. Facial recognition has contributed significantly to the Chinese surveillance state.
Facial recognition programs may also exacerbate the already existing racial biases of police officers. Even top performing facial recognition softwares still struggle to differentiate between African Americans — misidentifying them at rates five to ten times greater than they do whites, leading to a greater number of false positives, further solidifying police officer’s racist associations between criminality and minority status. These biases are irreversible; facial recognition algorithms fed with data coming from human beings with innate and unconscious racial biases will inevitably reflect that racial bias.
Biased algorithms are even more dangerous than biased people. People are accountable for their own actions — but when an algorithm inadvertently encourages racialized policing, biased behavior can then slip by undetected, settling underneath the veneer of scientific authority and the dazzle of exciting new technology.
Facial recognition has exploded into the modern technological mainstream, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The best one could ask of a nation and its citizens is that they stay vigilant. Facial recognition technology has shown that it is capable of doing bad things on a terrible scale; it is the obligation of all governments to do what they can within their power to keep pace with the development of this new technology. If the good voices of the world cannot keep pace with this new technology and all of its destructive capabilities, then the risks of facial recognition will continue to imperil society.