San Francisco has become the first major American city to block the use of facial recognition software by police, taking a stand on a fraught question involving a tradeoff between using a breakthrough technology in crimefighting, and bowing to concerns expressed by civil liberties groups about its potential for abuse by state agencies.
So, what is facial recognition?
Facial recognition is a biometric technology that uses distinctive features on the face to identify and distinguish an individual. From the first cameras that could recognise faces in the mid-1960s up to now, facial recognition has evolved in many ways — from looking at 3D contours of a face to recognising skin patterns. With machine learning, the technology has become capable of sorting out types of faces.
Are you ready for a world of facial recognition? Several UK police forces have been trialling the technology. pic.twitter.com/4LFLLEzSQe
— BBC Click (@BBCClick) May 13, 2019
Even affordable smartphones are now able to identify faces as male and female, and even mark an age. Face ID, Apple’s facial recognition system, can be used to unlock the latest iPhones and iPads, and for other functions.
The technology is extensively used to offer access to secure environments or devices. CCTV cameras in public places, plugged into powerful computers, can pick out faces and match them against a database, or just pick out certain types of faces. As camera capabilities have improved, facial recognition has become possible in low light, and even from long distances.
Facebook has for years used the technology to help users tag faces on the photos they upload. This, however, also means that the social network is sitting on a face recognition database with maybe a billion verified faces. Companies such as Yoti, GBG, and AgeID have been selling this technology to verify identities, ages, and remote presence of individuals.
Why are some people uneasy with this?
Over the past decade, as urban spaces all over the world have come to be covered extensively by surveillance cameras, avenues have opened up for the misuse or abuse of facial recognition technologies. China, which has possibly the most extensive network of CCTV cameras in the world, has reportedly been using facial recognition to pick out wanted individuals from crowds at airports and railways station.
There have also been reports of China using facial recognition technology to racially profile its citizens — sorting faces into categories of Han Chinese and Uyghur Muslim. The Uyghurs, a Turkic people living in China’s western Xinjiang Autonomous Region, have been restive under Beijing’s rule, and the Chinese state has responded with an oppressive system of surveillance, arrests and detentions. Given the fact that the technology continues to have a not-insignificant error rate, punitive state action based on such profiling could lead to grave miscarriages of justice.
Police authorities in many countries, including the United States, have been using facial recognition technology to identify crime suspects on the fly. The suspect in the mass shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018, that left five people dead, was identified using this technology. US Customs and Border Protection uses facial recognition in many airports and seaports.
The unease around the use of facial recognition stems from concerns over the loss of privacy, and fears that the state may be unwilling or incapable of protecting this fundamental right of citizens. Civil liberties advocacies have warned that the identification of people without their knowledge and consent stands in the way of their ability to act and move about freely. The New York Times reported that bans similar to San Francisco’s are being considered in Oakland, California, and in Somerville, Massachusetts, and that a Bill has been introduced in the US Congress seeking to bar users of commercial face recognition technology from collecting and sharing data for identifying or tracking consumers without their consent.
Where does India stand with regard to this technology?
The San Francisco decision comes as Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport prepares to roll out facial recognition as part of the boarding procedure for passengers later this year.
The facial biometric programme will be implemented as part of the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s Digi Yatra initiative. Airport operator Bengaluru International Airport Ltd had signed an agreement last year with a Portuguese software firm to implement the technology.
There is massive potential for both the use and misuse of facial recognition technology in India. This is because the country has the largest verified biometric database of faces in the world, thanks to the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) efforts to capture the data of as many citizens as possible. With UIDAI opening up its face recognition API, the same can be used as an additional verification method for financial or other transactions. At the same time, the system can, unless strong checks are put in place, be subject to massive abuse or misuse.