Advancements in biometric security solutions like facial recognition technology have led governments and organisations alike to utilise this technology.
Even though many citizens are concerned with how facial recognition could be abused by authorities, it can also have major security benefits if implemented properly. Will current concerns with biometrics remain a long-term issue, or will we eventually gain the tangible advantages of biometrics and reduce public concerns?
Security Benefits of Biometrics
Several large companies have already begun pilot programmes for facial recognition technology, especially as a part of counter-terrorism strategies. For instance, Amazon has stated that it is working on a product called Amazon Rekognition, which the FBI started piloting in early 2018.
Following the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas carried out by Stephen Paddock, FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counter-terrorism Christine Halvorsen has said, “We had agents and analysts, eight per shift, working 24/7 for three weeks going through the video footage of everywhere Stephen Paddock was the month leading up to him coming and doing the shooting.” Back in 2017, the law enforcement agency collected a petabyte (1000 TB) worth of data from mobile phone videos and surveillance cameras.
If it had facial recognition technology at that time, the FBI could have saved a significant amount of time and resources. In this case, not having facial recognition capabilities possibly meant that more cases went unsolved as agents focused on this specific case. Finally, there is a possibility that the crime could have been prevented altogether if the data had been analysed by facial recognition technologies in real-time.
Even though facial recognition could bring greater security benefits, many citizens worry that this will create new links between organisations and governments that would effectively turn various devices into tools for spying. This could not only create theoretical privacy debates but real-world issues for people everywhere. For example, the UK’s largest weapons manufacturer, BAE, has sold facial recognition surveillance technology to governments throughout the Middle East. This technology can essentially be used as a form of mass surveillance to monitor citizens. In many nations, citizens are concerned about the implications of providing this technology to repressive, authoritative regimes.
This isn’t the only issue that citizens should be aware of. Although the capabilities of facial recognition technology have come a long way in just a few years, it is still far from perfect. The accuracy of automated identification is lacking in many cases. For instance, during the UEFA Champions League Final week in Wales in June 2017, facial recognition cameras were used at this event for the first time. The automated camera systems sent 2,470 alerts of possible suspects or offenders, which the system detected as matches. 2,297 of these alerts were actually false positives. In comparison, only 173 individuals were correctly identified. This means that around 92 percent of matches were incorrect.
So what happens if the technology doesn’t work? In some scenarios, it could just mean that the system wasn’t worth the investment. It could also serve as a way to understand how technical improvements can be made to increase detection accuracy. In other (more extreme) scenarios where government or law enforcement over-rely upon the accuracy of the technology, this might lead to wrongful arrests.
Putting Technological Changes Into Perspective
As outlined above, there are already a number of active (potentially positive or negative) use cases for facial recognition. Yes, if this technology ends up in the hands of a malevolent government or individual, it can cause problems. However, this same concept can also apply to a number of other emerging technologies. When we think of other technologies that were once distrusted by the public in the past, it’s easy to see how perceptions tend to change over time.
To put things into perspective, it’s good to use a tangible example. Think of the adoption of online payments over the past three decades. These technologies were practically unheard of during the 1990s. Those that did exist weren’t user-friendly and were limited to only a few websites and companies. Most people were skeptical of using this newer technology. During the 2000s, online payments became more commonplace. By the 2010s, online payments became a large part of the global e-commerce economy and the accepted (and expected) norm.
As perceptions about the technology changed and as regulations formed around it, user adoption increased and skepticism vanished. Could the same thing happen with facial recognition technologies? For now, the answer is still unknown. Nonetheless, it’s clear that things could turn around with better technologies, increased regulations, and the addition of new/positive use cases.
Future Use Cases for Facial Recognition
So what are some possible future use cases for facial recognition that could improve society as a whole? There are actually quite a few to consider.
Doctors and medical labs could use facial recognition to improve the medical diagnoses of patients.
Officials can also use this technology to improve public safety and stop criminals. This doesn’t just apply to major crimes as mentioned above. It could also be used in a wide range of scenarios. A few examples include implementing facial recognition systems to curb retail theft or to identify individuals that are on missing persons lists.
Facial recognition or other biometric technologies can even be used to validate an individual’s identity at ATMs or on electronic devices where payment approvals are required. We are already seeing some examples of this with technologies like Apple’s Touch ID and Face ID. Additionally, facial recognition could even be used to prevent automobile theft or as a way to grant or deny access to offices, homes, and other buildings.
For now, most of the above-mentioned use cases are currently being implemented on a limited scale. Still, we can expect them to become more popular in the coming years as facial recognition technology continues to improve. When examining the adoption of other security technologies over the years, it’s clear that this process takes time. But when the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, they eventually become widely accepted and functional for all parties involved.
While citizens should be skeptical about organisations or governments that abuse this technology, it’s equally important to focus on how biometric technologies like facial recognition could be used to positively shape the future of society.