Resisting the rise of facial recognition

When it comes to commercial use of facial recognition, some researchers worry that laws focused only on gaining consent to use it aren’t strict enough, says Woodrow Hartzog, a computer scientist and law professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, who studies facial surveillance. It’s very hard for an individual to understand the risks of consenting to facial surveillance, he says. And they often don’t have a meaningful way to say ‘no’.

Hartzog, who views the technology as the “most dangerous ever to be invented”, says if US lawmakers allow firms to use facial recognition “despite its inevitable abuses”, they should write rules that prohibit the collection and storage of ‘faceprints’ from places such as gyms and restaurants, and prohibit the use of FRT in combination with automated decision-making such as predictive policing, advert-targeting and employment.

The Algorithmic Justice League, a researcher-led campaigning organization founded by computer scientist Joy Buolamwini at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, has been prominent in calling for a US federal moratorium on facial recognition. In 2018, Buolamwini co-authored a paper showing how facial-analysis systems are more likely to misidentify gender in darker-skinned and female faces4. And in May, she and other researchers argued in a report that the United States should create a federal office to manage FRT applications — rather like the US Food and Drug Administration approves drugs or medical devices5.

“What a federal office would do is provide multiple levels of clearance before a product can enter the market. If the risks far outweigh the benefits, maybe you don’t use that product,” says Erik Learned-Miller, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who co-authored the report.

In China, too, people have expressed discomfort with widespread use of facial recognition — by private firms, at least. An online survey of more than 6,000 people in December 2019 by the Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Centre, a think tank affiliated with the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper in Guangzhou, found that 80% of people worried about lax security in facial-recognition systems and 83% wanted more control over their face data, including the option to delete it. Chinese newspapers have run articles questioning FRT use, and the government is bringing in tighter data-protection laws. But the debate doesn’t usually question the use of cameras by the police and government, and the data-protection laws don’t put limits on government surveillance, says Graham Webster, who studies China’s digital policies at Stanford University in California.

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