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Facial Recognition Defaces Humanity
Gregoire Fellow, University of Washington School of Law
Facial recognition is the perfect tool for corporate and state control and violence. Facial recognition is already being used to track, subjugate, and mass imprison minority populations, locate and arrest protestors and dissidents, and inform extrajudicial killing operations. Facial recognition requires rampant surveillance and data collection. Not only can facial recognition be deployed atop existing surveillance infrastructure, the usefulness and accuracy of facial recognition technology turns on the size of its matching databases and probe image databases. Machine learning algorithms improve from greater amounts of data, which creates incentives to continually expand face surveillance infrastructure. In the words of Dr. Anna Lauren Hoffmann, “[f]acial recognition is not a benign extension of existing surveillance practices — it’s rocket fuel.”
Facial recognition threatens plural existence
Facial recognition without profiling is a contradiction in terms. Ignoring for a second the irony that “profile” is the outline of one’s face, the technological “value add” of facial recognition is the ability to profile. Analyzing and classifying the features of human faces to make predictions and decisions at scale is literally how categories like “race,” “gender,” “ability”, “normal”, and “dangerous” are constituted and made consequential. As a friendly reminder, IBM built a racial recognition profiling tool for NYPD just last year (not so friendly reminder that IBM technology also enabled the Holocaust).
Bigger picture, facial recognition threatens plural existence. Facial recognition depends upon universal, quantifiable notions of what humans are and can be. The normative of assumptions of biometric surveillance technologies (like facial recognition) depend on “paradoxical” notions of the human body: that we are all unique, similar, and stable over time. Yet as living beings, we age, deteriorate, and physically bear our histories, whether trauma, violence, hardship, or happenstance. Facial recognition inevitably and always entails distinctions between what is normal and abnormal, what is the rule and the exception. When a facial recognition system fails to fully grasp or cope with the plurality of human difference, it will categorize, target, and exclude. Facial recognition eviscerates context, punishes incongruence, and denies plural ways of being, and is ultimately, as Os Keyes defines “data science”, about “[t]he inhumane reduction of humanity down to what can be counted.”
Fearing face recognition is about a basic and rational concern for human life
Ultimately, the purported benefits of facial recognition are few and speculative and greatly outweighed by its substantial, demonstrable harms. At best, facial recognition is unsalvageable conceptually and technically. And at worst, it will get people killed. Fearing facial recognition is not about the Orwellian nihilism of luddites, it’s about a basic and rational concern for human life, freedom, and justice. Whether or not you live in a place where facial recognition will be deployed safely (spoiler alert: you can’t and won’t be), you must fear for those who are and will be violently bound up in systems of classification and state violence.
Thoughtful public regulation and corporate ethics are the keys to harnessing face recognition innovation
Product Manager, Kairos
Technology is a tool that enables us to do amazing things. How technology is used, and the effect it has on people depends entirely on how we use it. Should we fear technology? No. Should we have transparency and education to ensure technology is not abused to the misfortune of others? Yes.
The car is a powerful technology that has changed our lives for the better; it helps us to get our kids to school on time, explore a country on our vacation or allows us to visit family in another city. If there were no regulations around safety and standards for cars or laws around how and where they can be used, cars could and would cause a lot of harm.
Facial recognition offers a smoother, faster process for users
Similarly, face recognition software has really positive benefits for modern society. Facial recognition can be used as a biometric to verify someone’s identity allowing computer and phone login, buildings access to apartments or offices, payments with a face scan to replace cash and credit cards, even passport control can use face recognition instead of passports and boarding passes to check-in and board. Facial recognition offers a smoother, faster process for users and security does not have to be a trade-off. In the automotive industry, facial recognition can be used to identify signs of driver fatigue and driver distraction helping to stop road accidents. In the hospitality sector hotels can identify guests as they enter the hotel, offer self check in and out, replace keys and swipe cards for room access and enable guests to pay their bills all with facial recognition.
Combined with other capabilities such as body analysis, facial recognition can detect indicators of ill health such as heart attacks or strokes. Used in locations like care homes, this could save lives. Facial recognition can be used to find missing children and fight human trafficking. The missing children’s database in India consists of 240,000 missing children, the time and accuracy it takes a detective to cross match a missing child against this database are infinitely improved with facial recognition technology.
Facial recognition can detect indicators of ill health and fight human trafficing
However, it can also be misused and abused by individuals, private companies and government authorities. We have all read about the misuse and concerns of facial recognition; algorithms being racially biased, infringing on people’s privacy, or being used for big brother type mass surveillance of populations. But these concerns can and should be addressed with thoughtful regulation and standards.
Face recognition has many amazing applications that can bring a positive impact to society and these should be encouraged and not feared. At Kairos we believe tech companies and governments have a responsibility to ensure our technologies are not abused to the misfortune of others.