On the face of it, the Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s recent support for a temporary ban on facial recognition technologies seems uncharacteristic. It is not often that companies developing a technology call for its ban. Their interest is in promoting the use of technology, not proscribing it. Not every one of the leading tech companies agree with Google on facial recognition.
Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, has questioned the idea of a ban. Calling facial recognition a “young technology”, Smith said “it will get better. But the only way to make it better is actually to continue developing it. And the only way to continue developing it actually is to have more people using it.” Microsoft wants the scalpel rather than a meat cleaver in addressing the problems posed by the new technologies. IBM has taken a step forward in developing the “policy scalpel” by setting up a “lab” that will generate actionable ideas for policymakers to manage the emergence of new technologies like facial recognition that are shaping our digital future. The idea is to develop “precision regulation” rather than enforce “blunt” instruments like the ban.
The debate on finding the right balance between regulation and promotion of emerging technologies comes in the wake of leaked plans of the EU to issue a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technologies by private and public entities. The ban could be up to five years. The proposed ban is not a comprehensive one, and will be applicable to the use of facial recognition in public spaces.
The new thinking on facial recognition is part of an EU white paper, likely to be issued next month, on guidelines to regulate the use of artificial intelligence and other digital technologies.
The intensifying global debate also coincides with India’s own plans to roll out a massive project on deploying facial recognition technologies, essentially for law enforcement. The international discourse, hopefully, provides the context for developing a broad and effective Indian policy framework for the use of facial recognition.
Well before the EU had begun to discuss a temporary ban on facial recognition, there has been a “techlash” against the companies that have so dramatically altered our lives in the last few years. For nearly two decades, the idea that “digital is different” and does not need public oversight had triumphed in most capitals of the world. The main argument was that regulation constrains technological innovation and retards progress.
But the triumph of the digital companies, especially at the federal level in the US, has been muddied by state-level regulations across America. The urge to regulate has triggered widespread concerns about the dangers of digitalisation, especially the use of big data and AI by private companies as well as governments.
If companies were seen as monetising the data generated by the widespread use of digital platforms like Google and Facebook, China became the prime example of states using data and information to exercise ever more control over their citizens.
Civil society groups, which saw both “surveillance capitalism” and “surveillance state” as evils of the digital age that threaten individual rights, began to press for legislative action at the provincial and municipal levels.
These pressures from multiple directions have compelled the dominant technology companies to recognise that regulation is inevitable and that they should focus on shaping the outcomes. The technology companies also saw the need for some collective understanding at the international level for a set of universal rules for the conduct of digital business across the world. Microsoft’s promotion of a global code of conduct for the digital domain is an example.
Tech companies fear that too many constraints in democratic societies will weaken them against competition from China, where the party-state is actively developing and deploying AI.
But no aspect of AI triggers greater anxiety than facial recognition technology, the use of which has become widespread. China’s use of facial recognition to track and control its Muslim citizens in Xinjiang to using the technology to control the prolonged protests in Hong Kong are at one end of potential concerns.
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At the other end are concerns that facial recognition is not entirely accurate and could lead to punitive actions against innocent people. There is also concern in the US that the algorithms behind facial recognition carry the baggage of racism and misogyny that are inherent in the political culture shaping the development of technology.
But few can deny some of the advantages of the use of facial recognition for governments in the control of crime, better border controls and countering terrorism. In India, a severely under-policed nation, facial recognition surely offers many benefits.
But it also remains a fact that the Indian state has always been tempted to empower itself against its citizens in the name of collective security. It has also tended to weaponise information against political opponents and dissidents.
Delhi’s statist impulses have also tended to stifle the role of the private sector in the development of new technologies and their innovative use. In the immediate post-war years, Delhi punched way above its weight in debates on the global governance of new technologies like nuclear and space. Its voice has become increasingly marginal in the digital era where the private sector is driving technological development.
The foreign office must reclaim India’s place in the international discourse on AI and facial recognition and develop a productive alignment between India’s national interests and the development of new digital norms. At the same time, the government needs a more comprehensive domestic framework that promotes the use of new technologies for public good as well as imposes necessary constraints against their abuse by both state and capital.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 28, 2020 under the title “Raja Mandala: Here’s looking at you”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs, The Indian Express
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