Resisting the rise of facial recognition

Pandemic push

In March, Vladimir Bykovsky, a Moscow resident who’d recently returned from South Korea, left his apartment for a few moments to throw out his rubbish. Half an hour later, police were at his door. The officers said he had violated COVID-19 quarantine rules and would receive a fine and court date. Bykovsky asked how they’d known he’d left. The officers told him it was because of a camera outside his apartment block, which they said was connected to a facial-recognition surveillance system working across the whole of Moscow.

“They said they’d received an alert that quarantine had been broken by a Vladimir Bykovsky,” he says. “I was just shocked.”

The Russian capital rolled out a city-wide video surveillance system in January, using software supplied by Moscow-based technology firm NtechLab. The firm’s former head, Alexey Minin, said at the time that it was the world’s largest system of live facial recognition. NtechLab co-founder Artem Kukharenko says it supplies its software to other cities, but wouldn’t name locations because of non-disclosure agreements. Asked whether it cut down on crime, he pointed to Moscow media reports of hooligans being detained during the 2018 World Cup tournament, when the system was in test mode. Other reports say the system spotted 200 quarantine breakers during the first few weeks of Moscow’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Like Russia, governments in China, India and South Korea have used facial recognition to help trace contacts and enforce quarantine; other countries probably have, too. In May, the chief executive of London’s Heathrow airport said it would trial thermal scanners with facial-recognition cameras to identify potential virus carriers. Many firms also say they have adapted their technologies to spot people wearing masks (although, as with many facial-recognition performance claims, there is no independent verification).

Researchers worry that the use of live-surveillance technologies is likely to linger after the pandemic. This could have a chilling effect on societal freedoms. Last year, a group set up to provide ethical advice on policing asked more than 1,000 Londoners[4] about the police’s use of live facial recognition there; 38% of 16–24-year-olds and 28% of Asian, Black and mixed-ancestry people surveyed said they would stay away from events monitored with live facial recognition. Some people who attend rallies have taken to wearing masks or camouflage-like ‘dazzle’ make-up to try to confuse facial-recognition systems. But their only ‘opt-out’ option is to not turn up.

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