Resisting the rise of facial recognition

In Belgrade’s Republic Square, dome-shaped cameras hang prominently on wall fixtures, silently scanning people walking across the central plaza. It’s one of 800 locations in the city that Serbia’s government said last year it would monitor using cameras equipped with facial-recognition software, purchased from electronics firm Huawei in Shenzhen, China.

The government didn’t ask Belgrade’s residents whether they wanted the cameras, says Danilo Krivokapić, who directs a human-rights organization called the SHARE Foundation, based in the city’s old town. This year, it launched a campaign called Hiljade Kamera — ‘thousands of cameras’ — questioning the project’s legality and effectiveness, and arguing against automated remote surveillance.

Belgrade is experiencing a shift that has already taken place elsewhere. Facial-recognition technology (FRT) has long been in use at airport borders and on smartphones, and as a tool to help police identify criminals. But it is now creeping further into private and public spaces. From Quito to Nairobi, Moscow to Detroit, hundreds of municipalities have installed cameras equipped with FRT, sometimes promising to feed data to central command centres as part of ‘safe city’ or ‘smart city’ solutions to crime. The COVID-19 pandemic might accelerate their spread.

The trend is most advanced in China, where more than 100 cities bought face-recognition surveillance systems last year, according to Jessica Batke, who has analysed thousands of government procurement notices[1] for ChinaFile, a magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York City.

But resistance is growing in many countries. Researchers, as well as civil-liberties advocates and legal scholars, are among those disturbed by facial recognition’s rise. They are tracking its use, exposing its harms and campaigning for safeguards or outright bans. Part of the work involves exposing the technology’s immaturity: it still has inaccuracies and racial biases[2]. Opponents are also concerned that police and law-enforcement agencies are using FRT in discriminatory ways, and that governments could employ it to repress opposition, target protesters or otherwise limit freedoms — as with the surveillance in China’s Xinjiang province[3].

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