Facial recognition technology is growing quickly. More and more applications are asking for a look at your face as the ultimate in security. What does that mean, and what are the consequences?
You’re a digital-enabled human. That means, in all likelihood, some combination of Apple, Facebook, or Google knows everything about you that matters. ‘Tis the nature of the Almighty Cloud.
At the moment, the cloud(s) consist(s) of data you gave it voluntarily. If facial recognition were to become standard, to replace user IDs and credit card numbers as identification the way those things replaced signatures, it would link your physical self to that data.
In theory, anyone with the dough for a security camera or point-of-sale machine could buy the knowledge of what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, anywhere, anytime, so long as you were in eyeshot of a networked device.
Also in theory, fraud would be impossible, no criminal would go free, and no innocent person would ever be convicted of a crime. Right. Riiight.
Faces are unique, there’d be a camera on everything, and first in line to buy themselves some Every Breath You Take benevolent stalker gear would be the police. After all, if you’ve got a driver’s license, a residency card, a passport, or about nineteen other governmental thingamajigs, the Powers That Be already have your face. They’re just trusting humans to identify it. Robots might be better!
They also might not be (remember when police robots couldn’t tell the difference between a picture of sand dunes and a butt?).
Which is it? Who’s to say? Who gets to say?
The Verge recently asked that very question of a panel of very smart people. The result was a continuum of views on regulation of facial recognition technology, which is to say, at least 1 of these 5 people has probably correctly guessed how you’ll be interacting with technology for the next 50 years.
Lots of people are pro-regulation, but not always for obvious reasons.
First, as always, are the philosophers. Philosophers have been fretting about tech for so long one of the cave glyphs at Lascaux probably translates to “Fire: Is Society Ready?”
But philosophers are by no means always wrong, and in this case several have correctly noted that facial recognition technology is being marketed before the discussion of its limits has even begun.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Right now, all the decisions on what facial recognition technologies can and can’t do are being made by people who stand to benefit if it sells well.” quote=”Right now, all the decisions on what the tech can and can’t do are being made by people who stand to benefit if it sells well.”]
More moderate voices, ironically, speak to what could be even more serious concerns. Algorithms remain badly flawed when used in human-facing roles (remember Salter’s Law: for every person you replace putting AI in a customer-facing job, you will have to hire at least two more to handle the fallout when it screws up) and notoriously tend to perpetuate societal failings.
Current facial recognition software, for instance, has white guys down pat, but struggles to differentiate between people of color, women, children and the elderly. Likewise, it has an ugly habit of identifying innocent people as criminals if they happen to belong to the same minority group. The data we collect as a culture reflects our cultural biases, and all an algorithm can EVER do, is parse that data.
This is enough of a problem that many facial recognition companies are in favor of regulation, seeking to set development parameters from “go” in order to keep from perpetuating old ills.
On the anti-regulation side, shockingly, are early adopters who jumped in headfirst without triple-checking the consequences, and a bunch of people who sell facial recognition technology would quite like to have all the money, now, please.
They also have an extremely important point. The plain fact is that regulation cannot keep up with innovation.
Culture moves too quickly for laws to catch up now, and legislators are notoriously not tech-savvy. The people best qualified to understand exactly how facial recognition technology works, and therefore, to determine what limitations are necessary, are the people making it.
Opponents of regulation also point to the successes of facial recognition as implemented to date. Facial recognition has been used successfully in fields ranging from law enforcement to device security to shortening lines at the airport. Don’t know about y’all, but we at AG are all for improving all of those things.
So as of today, you are being surveilled. That’s fact.
If you’re in the States, over the course of your day, you will likely be surveilled by several different private entities. Including us, by the way. Hi! We call it “consumer data,” but it’s surveillance. If you’re in China, Russia or the UK, there’s an excellent chance your primary voyeur is the government instead, since they have the most active state-run surveillance systems. It’s the price of the Digital Age; someone is watching. How much are you willing to let them see?
In China, citizens are used to (therefore fine with) the government watching their every move on camera, but Americans aren’t historically open to Big Brother watching.
So, we’re really asking – is effortless, contactless shopping, travel and tech worth surrendering your face to the Omniscient Eye? Or is inefficiency a price worth paying for holding onto just that much of your privacy?
It bears repeating: facial recognition is happening, now. Decide quickly.