How is facial recognition used in today’s world? When is it problematic?

Why does the European Commission want a temporary ban on facial recognition technologies in public spaces?

January 26, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:09 am IST

The story so far: Last week, European media network EURACTIV and Politico published a story that said the European Commission is mulling a temporary ban (of up to five years) on the use of facial recognition technologies in public spaces. The story is based on a leaked draft paper being prepared by the Commission for publication in February. Two big tech companies — Alphabet and Microsoft — have taken completely different positions on the idea. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai is backing it while Microsoft President Brad Smith is not. This comes even as facial recognition technologies are being increasingly adopted by individuals, organisations, and governments.

Why does the European Commission want a temporary ban on facial recognition technologies in public spaces?

The reasons from the report referred to above are not fully known as the report is not out yet. But from earlier media reports, it can be inferred that the European Commission believes that indiscriminate use of facial recognition technologies is a privacy threat, and some regulations are needed so that this does not easily give way to surveillance. During the temporary ban period, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed,” says the leaked Commission paper, as reported by EURACTIV.

What exactly have been the reactions of Alphabet and Microsoft?

Mr. Pichai has been cited by Reuters as saying he thinks “it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it.” A moratorium, according to him, is needed because this technology can be used for nefarious purposes. Mr. Smith, has been quoted as saying: “I’m really reluctant to say let’s stop people from using technology in a way that will reunite families when it can help them do it.” He also said: “The second thing I would say is you don’t ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver.”

How is facial recognition used in today’s world? When is it problematic?

It is increasingly being used for everything: from unlocking your phone to validating your identity, from auto-tagging digital photos to finding missing persons, and from targeted advertising to law enforcement. China’s reported use of facial recognition technologies for surveillance in Xinjiang is an example of when this becomes problematic. It also becomes problematic in the absence of privacy and data security laws.

So, is it easy to isolate problematic use cases from beneficial ones?

Actually, it is based on a lot of factors. A blog post by tech major IBM categorises facial recognition systems into three. One, face detection, which could help count the number of people in traffic. Two, facial authentication, which could help you unlock your phone. Three, facial matching, which could help investigators quickly zero in on suspects. The use cases mentioned are in no way exhaustive.

IBM says in the post: “Each of these technologies and their uses can raise specific questions and possible concerns, ranging from privacy and civil liberties to user security and safety. In considering whether and how best to regulate any technology — from nuclear power to the Internet — it is imperative to consider both the use and the ultimate end-user. Facial recognition systems are no different.” So, it says, “Instead of simply banning an entire category of technologies with so many possible applications, including many that are helpful and benign, policymakers should employ precision regulation that applies restrictions and oversight to particular use-cases and end-users where there is greater risk of societal harm.”

Is the current debate on facial recognition part of a larger debate?

Yes, it flows from conversations all over the world and more specifically on both sides of the Atlantic on regulating artificial intelligence systems (advanced tech whose actions mimic those of humans). Such systems can write stories based on a database, drive cars (still being tested out), and automatically spot suspects in a crowd or for that matter spot anyone. The leaked report of the European Commission is not dealing with just facial recognition. Its mandate is to provide a framework for artificial intelligence. The U.S., on the other hand, has recently released guidelines regarding artificial intelligence, and they reportedly point to a light touch when it comes to regulation. Historically, Europe and the U.S. have had completely opposite approaches to regulation.

Meanwhile, what is the world doing with facial recognition technologies?

In a few U.S. cities, including San Francisco, there is now a ban on the government’s use of facial recognition technologies. But the list of adopters seem to be growing bigger by the day. London has joined the bandwagon, and will use real time facial recognition systems to police the city. Closer home, Telangana has recently tested this technology to verify voters in local elections.

What will now happen to the European Commission report?

It is likely to be published by the end of February. And the whole of the remaining part of the year will be spent in getting feedback. A law is not likely this year.

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