Can society build a healthy relationship with facial recognition?

Like most innovative new technologies, pessimism and concern is rife in discussions around facial recognition

In statements which take on even greater significance in the current climate, it has been called an epidemic by campaigners who warn against its use in both public and private spaces around the UK.

But the way that facial recognition has been communicated isn’t productive. Too often people focus on the problems associated with new technology while overlooking the benefits that it can bring. Facial recognition is a good example of this.

Society needs to appreciate that facial recognition is a powerful tool and we are lucky enough that now, in the 21st century, it is accessible and more efficient than ever before.

However, to play a positive role in the world, its uses must be clearly communicated to all, and citizens must have the right to trace and reclaim their data if their face is being used. For facial recognition to be accepted there must be a consent-driven relationship between the population and governments and business owners. In this relationship, full transparency is absolutely critical.

Advice to governments

The legal conversation around facial recognition is a hot topic around the world. In the US, for example, the government dropped the compulsory use of facial recognition of citizens in airports at US borders at the end of 2019. Also, last year, New York legislators updated local privacy laws to prohibit “use of a digital replica to create sexually explicit material in an expressive audiovisual work” (otherwise known as DeepFake tech) to counter this increasing threat.

These decisions show that despite its many benefits, facial recognition could also have negative impacts on personal privacy and liberty. Consider the use of facial recognition by law enforcement, where in certain situations public spaces are monitored without the public’s knowledge via CCTV and bodyworn cameras.

My take on this is that the only faces stored on the databases at the back-end of this technology should be those of convicted criminals, not everyday people. The data should never be used to ‘mine’ faces – a term which refers to the gathering and storage of information about peoples faces – as this isn’t ethical.

A question of consent

When used the right way however, this technology can make our lives easier and could even save lives. For this to be done in a healthy way, corporations and government bodies using facial recognition must embrace transparency, should only use people’s face data with consent and give them the option to remove their data if they desire.

As face recognition becomes part of our daily lives, more advanced security solutions will likely enter the market offering protection for users. Up until now, although some regulations have been put in place such as GDPR which requires personal data not be collected without an individual’s permission, they tend to be hazy when addressing the collection of a person’s face as a piece of data.

New worldwide regulations must ensure that governments, globally, are on the same page about how facial recognition should be used so that there is a balanced relationship between corporations and governments using the tech and the people whose faces are at the other end.

Facial recognition as a tool for business

What is already apparent in this new area of innovation is how facial recognition can turn what once seemed like crazy ideas into everyday reality. Today, facial recognition innovations are all around us. Casinos have been using facial recognition tools for years in order to identify and cater VIP services to high-rollers as well as to catch card counters. On a more every day level, Facebook’s DeepFace enables better image-based mechanisms, like tagging, and can identify people with a near-human accuracy level, based on no less than 120 million parameters.

Another example is Apple’s iPhone X feature Face ID, which needed some improvement at first, but is still considered a strong implementation of this exciting technology. Looking ahead, the potential of facial recognition extends across many industries and all businesses should be considering now how it can be utilised to unlock new efficiencies for their customers and positively impact the bottom line.

What a healthy relationship looks like

Our face plays a crucial part in our sense of self, and this may be why we are more alarmed at the idea of technology gaining access and using our facial features in contrast to other personal data. But really… how is that different to any other form of personal information we expose to the world?

At the end of the day, responsibly handled facial recognition technologies are much safer than an unsecured online registration form. Just like any data handler, facial recognition companies must have proper protections in place to ensure their databases are as secure as possible – and, importantly, they must communicate this to all potential users so they can be aware of how safe their face is.

For both businesses and consumers in the 21st century, embracing technology is mandatory in order to move forward and function effectively in day to day life. Businesses have the onus of using technology like facial recognition data responsibly and by doing this, reaping the amazing benefits that it can bring to consumers and organisations alike.