Facial recognition: the 3 dangers it presents

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Facial Recognition technology is starting to gain a lot of attention in the media today as the debate is beginning to grow on whether it is a benefit or a detriment to society.  The technology has an opportunity to provide so many useful benefits in the healthcare sector and the ability to help law enforcement track down dangerous individuals. But it can also be used as a powerful tool by governments to control their citizens in almost Orwellian fashion.  Do the positive potential uses for this technology outweigh the potential harm it could bring if in the wrong hands?

In this article, we’ll take a look at this technology, explaining what it is, how it’s currently being used, and the new potential threats it introduces.

What is facial recognition?

Facial recognition is a biometric software technology that can verify or identify a person based on their facial features and contours. The application uses artificial intelligence to analyze the patterns of a person’s features and compares to photos stored in databases to verify a match.  While there are many beneficial uses for this technology, there are also potential threats and dangers that this technology introduces. As some people are beginning to learn around the world, this technology is already being used in their city, even without them knowing it.  Hong Kong is one example that has recently gained significant attention in the news where this technology is being used against its citizens. Recently, a video on Twitter showed how protesters in Hong Kong took down a “smart lamppost” said to have a facial recognition technology being used by China.

In private conversations held through instant messaging between citizens in Hong Kong and one of the companies we work with on this channel, MiraSafety, several citizens from Hong Kong inquired about purchasing mask that could both help them protect their identity and protect their eyes from the non-lethal rubber bullets being fired on protestors which recently resulted in one protestor losing her eye after one of these rounds pierced the eye protection she was wearing.  Hong Kong citizens were not only concerned about the gas and rubber bullets being used by the Chinese military and police, but they’re just as concerned, if not more, about the government using facial recognition technology to identify their faces. They know that if the police do not arrest them during the demonstrations should they be caught, the military will be coming for them in the future when the protests end.

This is one example that is gaining worldwide attention of what we’re seeing happening right now with this technology.  Question: Do you know if it’s being used in your area?

Where facial recognition is used in the U.S.

Before we get to the dangers that facial recognition poses, let’s first discuss where this technology is being used in the U.S., just in case you wanted to know.

  1. Government Agencies – One of the main users of this technology is the U.S. government itself.  Several of the federal government’s agencies are already using this technology for security purposes when issuing identity documents.
    1. The FBI is authorized in 18 states to use this technology to scan the Department of Motor Vehicles’ database of driver’s license to help in identifying possible terrorists.
    2. The Customs and Border Protection also uses the technology in numerous U.S. airports to scan international flight passengers. The Department of Homeland Security said that the technology can help quickly process immigration and screen travelers.
    3. Local Police Departments in 26 states or more are also using this technology to help identify and arrest criminals. They even use this to identify and arrest individuals in protests.  Sound familiar?
  2. Health Industry – The health industry is also taking advantage of facial recognition technology. One of its primary uses is increasing hospital security, as this technology allows hospitals to prevent patient fraud and properly identify flagged individuals. The advancement in deep learning and facial analysis is also making it possible for health professionals to do the following:
    1. Detect genetic diseases with high accuracy.
    2. Track and monitor if patients are taking medication properly and accurately.
    3. Support and improve procedures in pain management.
  3. Marketing and Retail – Facial recognition technology is also changing the way brands and retail stores do their marketing and engage with customers. With so many applications and features focusing on ad blocking, this new technology could prove to be the innovative feature that brands are looking for to help with their marketing efforts to more effectively target you.
    1. This technology can help brands recommend products or services based on the viewer’s mood derived from the features of their faces.
    2. The Hawaiin Tourism Authority has partnered with Expedia to help them identify which marketing footage is generating a positive response from the audience based on their facial reaction then providing appropriate deals or discounts related to the footage.
    3. Retail stores can also use facial recognition to monitor customer’s shopping behavior and improve certain processes to enhance the customer experience.  

As you can see, facial recognition is already being used by both the private and public sectors. However, not everyone is ecstatic with the possibilities that this technology provides as there’s potential for abuse.

In May 2019, the City of San Francisco became the first major city to ban local government agencies from using facial recognition. The ordinance was called Stop Secret Surveillance and the city said that the threat of endangering civil liberty and civil rights outweighs the benefits that facial recognition provides. The city of Sommerville, Massachusetts followed San Francisco shortly thereafter and also issued a similar ban on the use of the technology.  Shortly thereafter in July of 2019, Oakland, California became the third city to also ban facial recognition and it seems other cities are following suit.

But the hurdles that this technology is facing will not end there, as two lawmakers are looking to introduce a new bipartisan bill regarding facial recognition.  Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan (Republican) and Maryland’s 7th Congressional District Rep. Elijah Cummings (Democrat) are the 2 lawmakers that are spearheading this new bill.

Details of what the bill will contain are still being hashed out, but a representative from Jordan’s office said that the bill could include stopping the federal government from making new facial recognition technology purchases.

What are the threats that facial recognition introduces?

With so many people, advocacy groups, and even politicians opposed to the use of facial recognition, let’s now discuss the actual threats that this technology creates. This will shed a little more light on the potential abuse when it comes to your rights and how they could be impacted.

  1. Unregulated Surveillance – One of the main threats that facial recognition possesses is that it doesn’t have any regulation yet, which means the use of this technology for surveillance purposes doesn’t have any boundaries, limits, or guidelines.  As previously mentioned, two bipartisan lawmakers are collaborating to introduce a new bill regarding this technology and still ironing out the details.  Without any regulation, government agencies and private companies can do just about whatever they want with this technology. This is why the FBI can access the DMV’s data and use facial recognition technology to retrieve photos from driver’s license, even without your consent.
    1. One major issue with facial recognition being unregulated is that it is ripe for abuse.  Authorities won’t need to follow any procedure with regards to how they should proceed after using the technology and identifying their target.  Microsoft President Brad Smith said in 2018 that authorities might rely on a flawed or biased technological approach when it comes to who they can track, investigate, and even arrest.
    2. The lack of regulation also means that there aren’t any consequences in the event that the implementation of the facial recognition technology is wrong.  The American Civil Liberties Union, came out with a study that showed face recognition technology can fail.  They tested Amazon’s face surveillance technology, named “Rekognition”, and it falsely matched the faces of 28 members of the U.S. Congress to people who have committed crimes from a mugshot database.  There was also a report that shows the software tends to make mistakes when the photo it is studying is that of an individual with darker skin, especially women.  This shows that technology can also fail, which can lead to authorities making mistakes in investigating or arresting individuals of the wrong person.
  2. It can be used to target certain groups or individuals – Since this technology is not yet regulated, it is easy for governments to use the technology to monitor or target certain groups or individuals they deem as a threat.  The most well-known case of this happening is in China, where the government is using facial recognition to detect Uyghur Muslims and track their every movement. The group is ethnically Turkic Muslims that live in western China (Xinjiang). There have been verified reports that the region has essentially been turned into an internment camp, where more than a million people were detained and are being forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, pledge allegiance to the president, renounce their faith, and have experienced other human rights abuses.
    1. The plight that this group is experiencing in China shows that facial recognition, combined with other surveillance technology, can be used by the government to track and monitor your every movement. This is an issue because this is clearly a loss of civil liberties and civil rights. Once the government knows your every movement and location, you have effectively lost your rights as the government now has you under its surveillance.
    2. But more than the loss of privacy and liberty, this technology can also be used to track and monitor groups and individuals who don’t align with the government’s views and are seen as “problems” to the state.  This is problematic because governments can easily arrest or detain these groups and individuals once they do anything that doesn’t align with the government’s views. This will hinder free speech in nations where certain liberties are kept in check by the state since people won’t be able to speak against the government out for fear of being arrested and detained.  Your ability to confront the government will now result in you potentially being apprehended or reprimanded by the state. China is already taking advantage of this technology to identify people who commit crimes, including what they deem as political crime.  The country is also trying to do the same in Hong Kong, which has led to massive protests for more than 2 months.  At the time of the writing of this article, the protests are still being held as the people in Hong Kong are literally fighting for their future.  It’s safe to assume that other governments will be willing to use this same technology to try and repress their political opposition once they see the full capabilities to target them.  Currently, we’re seeing this first hand in the U.S. with charged language, assailing political opposition, claiming those who are out of lockstep with the current reigning political party as disloyal and unpatriotic and therefore worthy of additional scrutiny.  This vitriolic rhetoric and barrage have already resulted in political dissidents being targeted thus setting the groundwork for technology like this to be used en masse to focus on those that oppose the government. This will undoubtedly end poorly for those of us that value personal freedom of speech and thought.
  3. It can be used without people’s consent or knowledge – Facial recognition is a technology that authorities and companies have already begun to use without your consent or knowledge.  I’m sure a lot of you didn’t know that the FBI was using the technology to scan the photos of your driver’s license or about U.S. airports using the tech to screen passengers.  
    1. Last April 2019, writer MacKenzie Fegan took to Twitter to detail her encounter with JetBlue’s facial recognition technology. She said that instead of looking at the boarding pass, she was asked to look into a camera before being allowed to board.  One of her issues with this setup is that she didn’t even give any consent as to whether she wanted her face to be subjected to the use of the technology. But it gets worse. When the airline company replied to her tweet to apologize and tell her to opt-out anytime, she took the opportunity to ask how the airline knew beforehand what she looked like.  They said that the information was given to them by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Though others commented that her passport details are probably already in the database, the fact that all of this is done without her consent and knowledge is what’s troubling.
    2. This is just one of the many examples of how both the private and public sectors utilize the technology without your consent. This is why many people are calling this technology a threat to civil liberties and civil rights.

Conclusion

Facial recognition technology provides an opportunity to further increase national security and also improve how businesses can interact with their customers. But, these perceived benefits come with a price and that price is a threat to your freedom with the potential for abuse.  If no laws clearly dictate how this technology is to be regulated, then the possibilities for abuse are open-ended. Authorities and other groups can use the technology for their benefit or bias instead of using it for its real purpose.

I hope this article provided you with the information you need to know about facial recognition, what this technology does, where it’s usually used, and what threat does it pose. The article isn’t designed to scare you or anything, but my goal is to make you aware that this kind of technology exists and is already being used, mostly without our consent or knowledge.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on social media. As always, keep safe out there.

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