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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

The controversy surrounding facial recognition

By Holly Downes

Facial recognition is a technology that has maximised our safety and protection, served justice by solving crime cases, and has made identification safe through authentication, yet there is a dark potential for this technology.

By using biometric software to identify and verify a person’s facial contours from a digital image, facial recognition has become a revolutionary part of technology. Comparing large databases of recognisable faces to find a match is applied to our everyday lives – from using it to pay for our weekly shop to unlocking our phones to solving despicable crimes, it comes with many benefits. It has become a convenience to say the least – it has made our lives just that little easier.

No longer do we have to wait in excruciatingly long queues for passport control at Stansted Airport – we simply peer into a camera and are granted freedom. No longer do we have to go through tireless documents to transfer money – we simply look into the camera, and it is transferred. No longer do we need to scroll down endless Facebook accounts when tagging friends in posed pictures – Facebook simply matches a face to the user’s account. Pure simplicity. When life is dedicated to frantically completing checklists and sticking to commitments, slightly alleviating this stress is what we all need.

Yet, as the saying goes, there is no light without darkness.

Such simplicity comes at a rather large cost, one which threatens our inalienable human rights to freedom and privacy. It has become a time when you cannot enter a supermarket without security cameras scanning your face, where data is beginning to be stored without our permission. Has facial recognition become too powerful, too controlling?

In places such as China, facial recognition technology has become a surveillance tool.

The government uses facial recognition cameras to spot and fine jaywalkers, verify students at school gates and even monitor their expressions in class to ensure they are paying attention. This is where facial recognition has become a tool of oppression. Every movement is monitored and scrutinised. Every spontaneous decision to pop to the shop is recorded. It is beginning to control lives, monitor citizens and violate their freedom. Its power is being taken advantage of – maximised to the extreme.

The social media giant, Meta, formally known as Facebook, has acknowledged this abuse of power. Recently Jerome Pesenti, the vice president of artificial intelligence, released a statement saying that ‘people will no longer be automatically recognised in photos and videos and more than a billion people’s individual facial recognition templates will be deleted’[1]. Noticing the ethical dilemma behind facial recognition technology, where profit is being prioritised over preventing risks to user’s privacy, this decision marks a development in advocating privacy rights.

On top of this, Pesenti addressed the racial and gender bias involved with facial recognition. With studies revealing that recognition systems incorrectly identify up to 34% dark-skinned women, 49 times more than that of white men, this is a bias that cannot go unaddressed.[2] And with Meta leading the social media game, hopefully other social media outlets will follow their decision.

Yet, one cannot predict the future. With companies still relying upon facial recognition technology, this raises major alarm bells. Those who own these databases are automatically given the power to do what they wish with this faceprint data – should we trust the freedom these companies are granted?

And this question has not been left unanswered. Take the ‘the world’s largest facial network company’, Clearview Al. Supplying facial recognition technologies to companies, law enforcements and universities globally, they have databases with over ten billion facial images on the internet. This alarmingly high number has been suggested to ‘include a substantial number of people from the UK, many without their knowledge and therefore consent’. Without a lawful reason for collecting facial features, along with failing to inform those residing in the UK of what their data was being used for, they were fined £17 million over committing serious breaches of data protection law.[3] Although their services are now no longer offered in the UK, there is still evidence they are gathering and processing significant volumes of UK people’s information without their knowledge.

This case is just one example of the powers large facial recognition companies hold. Whilst it aims to protect, in doing so, our very human right to privacy is invaded in the process. It has become a time where he must fight between two inalienable rights – our right to security or our right to privacy. The two cannot simply co-exist. By prioritising our security, our privacy must be invaded, yet by preserving our privacy, these companies cannot protect society. What does one treasure the most – safety or freedom?



 

[1] Jerome Pesenti. An update on our use of Face Recognition (Meta, November 2 2021) <https://about.fb.com/news/2021/11/update-on-use-of-face-recognition/>[Accessed 30 December 2021]

[2] Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification in Proceedings of Machine Learning Research 81:1-15, (New York and Cambridge: 2018) 1

[3] Rob Davies, US facial recognition firm faces £17m UK fine for ‘serious breaches’ (The Guardian, 29th November 2021) < https://amp.theguardian.com/technology/2021/nov/29/us-facial-recognition-firm-faces-17m-uk-fine-for-serious-breaches-clearview-ai > [Accessed 30 December 2021]





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