Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 March 2018

Facial recognition: potential for a technology war 

Privacy advocates call for regulations, greater transparency and official oversight of the technology

A police officer wearing a pair of smartglasses with a facial recognition system at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. AFP
A police officer wearing a pair of smartglasses with a facial recognition system at Zhengzhou East Railway Station in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province. AFP

With news emerging last week that police in China are now sporting sunglasses equipped with facial-recognition cameras to help them pick wanted criminals out of a crowd, fears of a Dystopian society are ramping up.

It surely is another step toward Big Brother watching everyone’s every move. Privacy watchers worry, even more so than is already the case.

But, just as all manner of companies and entities that hoover up peoples’ data are now facing a growing backlash, such developments – and the facial-recognition technology fuelling them – are likely to provoke a similar reckoning in one form or another.

In China’s case, police recently began using the sunglasses at the Zhengzhou East high-speed rail station in Henan province. In a short period of time they were able to identify seven fugitives in hit-and-run and human-trafficking cases and 26 cases of identity fraud, according to the South China Morning Post.

It’s not just China. Law enforcement in many countries is increasingly becoming enamoured with the real-time ability to identify individuals and match their images with database information.

The UAE, for one, is adding tens of thousands of cameras across Dubai ahead of Expo 2020. Authorities expect the technology will help them fend off and prevent everything from serious crimes to minor traffic violations.

Tech companies are getting on board too, with varying degrees of privacy sensitivity. Facebook, for example, last year expanded its ability to detect users in posted photos that they had not been explicitly tagged in.

Apple, meanwhile, put facial recognition front and centre in the iPhone X, making it the main method with which users unlock the device.

In both cases, the companies say the capabilities are purely voluntary. Apple went a step further, saying that any facial data gleaned from users stays strictly on the devices and is never uploaded to any server.

Amazon’s recently opened cashier-less store in Seattle also tracks customers with dozens of cameras, but the company – cognizant of the potential privacy backlash – says it isn’t using facial recognition.


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Instead, the multitude of cameras track and identify buyers as they move through the store without resorting to a stored database. It’s similar, but a little less worrisome since it doesn’t match images with pre-stored information. Also, anyone entering the store is doing so voluntarily.

All in all, facial recognition technology is expected to experience robust growth over the next few years, with law enforcement acting as the biggest buyer. The global market will grow nearly 14 per cent annually to US$7.7 billion by 2022, from $4bn last year, according to analysis firm Report Linker.

There are obvious societal benefits, as the Chinese results have highlighted. Facial recognition can be used to pick the proverbial needle out of a haystack and, when coupled with artificial intelligence, it can potentially help prevent crimes before they happen.

Those same capabilities, however, are provoking a host of concerns – perhaps more so than with other forms of data collection because of the potential for errors. And, unlike using Facebook or an iPhone, people can be subjected to the technology without knowledge or consent.

A 2016 study by the US-based Georgetown Law Centre for Privacy and Technology found that more than half of Americans already had their image stored in a facial recognition network. Such databases were being readily shared with law enforcement agencies.

Researchers, however, pointed out that facial recognition, at least in the US, is almost completely unregulated, prompting privacy advocates to call for greater transparency and official oversight of the technology.

Law enforcement and possibly governments will certainly fight such moves and in places like China, such movements are likely to be non-starters. The market for anti-surveillance measures, on the other hand, is likely to grow as well.

For $22, a Czech Republic-based company will sell a “Justice Cap”, a simple baseball hat equipped with infrared LED lights in the brim. The hat effectively blinds surveillance cameras by obscuring the wearer’s face with a bright IR flash.

Berlin-based artist and technologist Adam Harvey, meanwhile, is working on something he calls Hyperface, a printed pattern that can be applied to clothing and textiles. The pattern appears to have many eyes, noses and other facial features, which can introduce indiscernible noise and confuse facial-recognition software.

Authorities may try to restrict or even outlaw such measures, similar to how some municipalities have made it illegal to use jamming devices to foil red-light traffic cameras. But it’s easy to see a veritable arms race developing between the two sides. Sooner or later, a big tech company is going to make anti-surveillance a selling point.

The market for anti-drone technology – lasers and electronics designed to detect and fool unmanned vehicles – has already established itself. Analysis firm Markets and Markets expects 25 per cent annual growth to $1.5bn by 2023.

If governments don’t offer citizens privacy rights or are slow to re-assert them, this arms race – or rather face race – is sure to escalate.