On July 13, 2018, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, published a blog post calling for “public regulation and corporate responsibility” of facial recognition technology. Smith’s post joins an existing call to regulate facial recognition technology, which cites civil rights and privacy issues as the main concerns for the technology.
What Can Facial Recognition Technology Do?
CNN describes facial recognition technology as a “computer’s ability to identify or verify people’s faces from a photo or through a camera.” Facial recognition technology is not a software of the future—companies are already using it for a myriad of purposes. Some uses of this technology are as simple as cataloging pictures, automatic photo tagging, and replacing passwords. For instance, one of Apple X’s distinct features is Face ID, which uses facial recognition to unlock a user’s phone instead of a traditional password or Touch ID.
These examples demonstrate how this technology is being used on a personal level for personal devices, but other usages are beyond user control. Law enforcement and the government can potentially use this technology to more efficiently identify criminals. According to The New York Times, Amazon has become “one of the first major tech companies to actively market technology for conducting facial recognition to law enforcement.” They have already partnered with law enforcement in Florida and Oregon.
This technology is not limited to the United States. In Shenzhen, China, AI-powered surveillance can identify when a pedestrian jaywalks. Moreover, the jaywalker will receive a text to their phone with a fine, and their name and face will be “instantly displayed on LED screens installed at Shenzhen road junctions.”
A main source of criticism over this technology is that facial recognition can occur without the observed party’s knowledge or permission, which can lead to greater questions of transparency. The New York Times has also reported how Madison Square Garden has been testing out facial recognition software, but “it is unclear when the face-scanning system was installed.”
Smith writes in his blog post that facial recognition technology is rapidly advancing, which partly “reflects the advent of larger and larger datasets as more images of people are stored online.” Simply put, one reason why facial recognition technology is getting better is because there is more data and information from consumers.
Supporters of facial recognition technology view it as a tool to more efficiently identify criminals, but in response to Amazon’s collaboration with law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations penned a letter that asks Amazon not to sell its face recognition technology, Rekognition, to the government.
There have been reports regarding civil liberties, which demonstrate that “ethnic minorities are more likely to be jailed for some crimes.” Given this preexisting bias, the letter expresses concerns that Rekognition could lead to an increase in the surveillance of “those labeled suspicious by governments” which includes “undocumented immigrants or Black activists.” Additionally, despite facial recognition technology’s rapid development, it is beyond perfect: an MIT project titled “Gender Shades” reported that facial recognition technology’s accuracy was less reliable when analyzing women and people of color’s faces.
Moving forward, Smith suggests a bipartisan effort to establish regulation, as “the only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself.”