Some of the more dramatic recent reports of facial recognition would lead us to believe that this technology is an “epidemic of our time” as campaigners such as Big Brother Watch have warned against facial recognition use in shopping centres, museums, conference centres and other private spaces around the UK. Yet, despite the fact that I am the co-founder of a startup whose mission is to empower people to take ownership over their data privacy, I actually don’t think it is a bad thing – if the correct boundaries are in place.
Tech turns ideas into everyday reality in a heartbeat, and today, facial recognition innovations are all around us. The facial recognition in airports helps us get through security faster than ever before (if it works!) and Facebook’s DeepFace enables better image-based mechanisms, like tagging, and can identify people with a near-human accuracy level, based on no less than 120 million parameters.
In short, facial recognition has hundreds of amazing and important uses but there is also a very important privacy conversation to be had around this. There needs to be a more in-depth, industry-wide debate about the benefits and restrictions around this technology and to do this we must embrace a healthier attitude to what is one of the most exciting innovations of our time. In this article I want to look at three of the biggest concerns around facial recognition and the boundaries we can put in place to protect our personal data and feel more comfortable about this exciting new technology.
“What’s more personal than my face? This is the one piece of data I don’t want companies to be storing”
Every new technology has a market to educate and its share of critics to face, and facial recognition tools are often met with harsh criticism. DeepFace was described as “creepy”, both Google and Apple had to fix bugs that made their products seem racist, and Amazon falsely identified members of Congress as criminals. It seems that when our face is involved, the potential risk of leaked or manipulated data become clearer and more frightening to users.
Our face plays a crucial part in our sense of self, and perhaps that’s why we are more alarmed at the idea of technology gaining access and using our facial features for unknown purposes or in a poorly secured manner. How is that different than any other form of personal information we expose to the world? It’s not, really. Do we consider our face more important than our bank account? Probably not. At the end of the day, responsibly handled facial recognition technologies are much safer than an unsecured online registration form. Just like any data handlers, facial recognition companies must have proper protections in place to ensure their databases are as secure as possible – and, importantly, they must communicate this to all potential users so they can be aware of how safe their face is!
“Deepfake technology could ruin my life and it should be banned”
There is a certain level of danger in enabling others to generate our face out of thin air and change expressions willy-nilly. DeepFake technologies post a long line of legal, political, ethical and social threats. Just a few months ago, New York legislators updated local privacy laws to prohibit “use of a digital replica to create sexually explicit material in an expressive audiovisual work” because the notion of someone doing that is very real. Along its many blessings, facial recognition has the destructive power to change the game for the worse and it is up to our society to create clear boundaries that will enhance the positive and control the negative.
In addition to clear and firm boundaries, we need to step up the security game around facial recognition technology solutions. Currently, even the world’s biggest tech companies cannot promise that our face-related data will be 100% secure. Google’s attempts to fight DeepFake videos included spreading fake videos, which means that more resources should be invested in these efforts. We can be sure, however, that as facial recognition technology becomes an inseparable part of our daily routine, more advanced security solutions will enter the market and do their best to protect it. Blocking facial recognition may push it underground, meaning we see even more uses of DeepFake – and potentially even scarier technologies – emerging. So, it’s really important to embrace the good.
“How can some forms of facial recognition ever be legal if they can’t ask for my permission to store my face?”
This is a part of the facial recognition industry which requires significant attention. The GDPR requires that personal data is not collected without an individual’s permission, however the regulation is hazy in its discussion of facial recognition. That is because in a small percentage of facial recognition use cases, it is challenging to ask a person for their permission. The law enforcement industry is the obvious sector that comes to mind when considering this argument, as it is increasingly using facial recognition to monitor public spaces when looking out for potential criminals so as to enhance police action. My take on this is that the only faces stored on these databases should be those of criminals, everyday people should not be and this technology shouldn’t be used to mine faces either as this isn’t ethical. This technology could help save lives, so I don’t agree with those wishing it to be banned. The bodies using it should just clearly communicate what they are using it for – and that the only faces they are looking for and storing are people of interest on police watchlists.
Everything written here regarding the dangers of facial recognition is true for many other pieces of personal information that escape our radar and have been manipulated, traded and used without consent all over the place for years. If facial recognition is the technology that can get us all to wake up, that’s a very good thing for online privacy in general. The changes in public attitude, discussion and legislation are a long time coming and the emergence of whichever technology can shift things for the better is a positive sign.
Facial recognition technology is a wonderful thing, when used responsibly. We mustn’t allow our fears and the negative experience we’ve come across using previous technology to stop progress. Instead, what we should do is embrace this opportunity and make sure it is put to the best possible use.
Guestpost by Gal Ringel, CEO and co-founder, Mine
Main image picture credits: Trismegist san/Shutterstock
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