When you post a photo on Facebook, and the platform automatically tags the people in the image, you might not give much thought to the technology behind the convenience. However, when you discover that facial recognition technology could track you without your permission while you walk down a street in London, it might make you question the invasion of your privacy. Just like with any other new technology, facial recognition brings positives and negatives with it. Since it’s here to stay and expanding, it’s good to be aware of the pros and cons of facial recognition.
What is facial recognition, and how does it work?
Facial recognition is a biometric technology that uses distinguishable facial features to identify a person. Allied Market Research expects the facial recognition market to grow to $9.6 billion by 2022. Today, it’s used in a variety of ways from allowing you to unlock your phone, go through security at the airport, purchase products at stores and in the case of entertainer and musician Taylor Swift it was used to identify if her known stalkers came through the gate at her Rose Bowl concert in May 2018.
Today, we are inundated with data of all kinds, but the plethora of photo and video data available provides the dataset required to make facial recognition technology work. Facial recognition systems analyse the visual data and millions of images and videos created by high-quality Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras installed in our cities for security, smartphones, social media, and other online activity. Machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities in the software map distinguishable facial features mathematically, look for patterns in the visual data, and compare new images and videos to other data stored in facial recognition databases to determine identity.
Pros of facial recognition
One of the major advantages of facial recognition technology is safety and security. Law enforcement agencies use the technology to uncover criminals or to find missing children or seniors. In New York, police were able to apprehend an accused rapist using facial recognition technology within 24 hours of an incident where he threatened a woman with rape at knifepoint. In cities where police don’t have time to help fight petty crime, business owners are installing facial-recognition systems to watch people and identify subjects of interest when they come in their stores.
Airports are increasingly adding facial recognition technology to security checkpoints; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security predicts that it will be used on 97 percent of travellers by 2023. When people know they are being watched, they are less likely to commit crimes so the possibility of facial recognition technology being used could deter crime.
Since there is no contact required for facial recognition like there is with fingerprinting or other security measures, facial recognition offers a quick, automatic, and seamless verification experience. There is nothing such as a key or I.D. That can be lost or stolen.
Facial recognition can add conveniences. In addition to helping you tag photos in Facebook or your cloud storage via Apple and Google, you will start to be able to cheque-out at stores without pulling out money or credit cards—your face will be scanned. At the A.I. Bar, facial recognition technology is used to add patrons who approach the bar to a running queue to get served their drinks more efficiently.
Although possible, it’s hard to fool facial recognition technology so it can also help prevent fraud.
Cons of facial recognition
The biggest drawback for facial recognition technology in most people’s opinions is the threat to an individual’s privacy. In fact, several cities have considered or will ban real-time facial recognition surveillance use by law enforcement, including San Francisco, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and more. These municipalities determined the risks of using the technology outweighed the benefits. Police can still use footage from personally owned devices such as Nest cameras to find criminals; it’s just not allowing the government entities to use live facial recognition software.
While London’s King’s Cross is using facial recognition, London is also at the forefront of democratic societies in its testing of the technology. In test events, the city hopes to determine the accuracy of the systems while grappling with how to deal with individuals who cover up to hide their identity from cameras and other issues. Additionally, democratic societies must define the legal basis to live facial-recognition of the general population, and when blanket use of the technology is justified.
The technology isn’t as effective at identifying people of colour and women as it is white males. One reason for this is the data set the algorithms are trained on is not as robust for people of colour and women. Until this is rectified, there are concerns about the ramifications for misidentifying people with the technology.
In addition, there are issues that need to be resolved that can throw off the technology when a person changes appearance or the camera angle isn’t quite right (although they are working on being able to identify a person by only their earlobe). It’s dramatically improving; according to independent tests by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) facial recognition systems got 20 times better at finding a match in a database over a period that covered 2014 to 2018.
Another potential downside is the storage of sensitive personal data and the challenges that come with it. Just last week, we have had the news that a database containing facial scans used by banks, police forces, and defence firms where breached.
In order to benefit from the positive aspects of facial recognition, our society is going to have to work through some significant challenges to our privacy and civil liberties. Will individuals accept the invasion of their privacy as a proper cost to being more secure and for the conveniences facial recognition provides?