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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Massive facial recognition becomes a political issue

Already for a few years, many of us are using one-to-one facial recognition on our handsets: many smartphones can now be unlocked by just looking at them, making the phone attempting to match the candidate face with the one that had been previously enrolled.

Also, airlines and airports are increasingly using one-to-several facial recognition systems: at check-in or at boarding, candidate faces are matched with a series of faces found in a database of records representing the list of passengers expected on a given flight.

One-to-many facial recognition, which includes the possibility to use the technology for forensic research, law enforcement, preservation of order or even political enforcement of authoritarian rule causes a lot more issues. Several initiatives have been launched by technology firms and local governments that aim at defining what would be an ethically acceptable use for facial recognition.

In the UK, controversy arises about a project that consisted in installing surveillance recognition cameras in the Kings Cross area of London to analyze and track passers-by using facial recognition technology. The installation is presented as scientific research by the police but was operating out of any legal framework from 2015 to 2018.

In the US, several cities have decide to ban facial recognition for government applications. The movement was started by the city of San Francisco, followed by Oakland and Berkeley; now Portland, Oregon and Springfield, Massachusetts, are considering similar bans. Moreover, the California governor recently signed a bill that imposes a 3-year ban on the use of the tech in conjunction with police body-worn cameras. The New York Assembly is considering a bill to ban facial recognition in schools and on police body cameras.

ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union), a US civil rights non-profit organization, has undertaken to sue several US government agencies: the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), claiming they have refused to comply with freedom of information requests related to the transparency of law enforcement usage of facial recognition technology. This technology has “the potential to enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale. Such surveillance would permit the government to pervasively track people’s movements and associations in ways that threaten core constitutional values,” says ACLU.

At the same time the French Data Protection Authority, CNIL, has prohibited the use of facial recognition to control entry into a school as disproportionate. Local authorities which were promoting the method are already working on revising their submission files to water down the use of facial recognition while keeping on using the technology.

In Hong Kong, law enforcement authorities have allegedly access to facial recognition technology from iOmniscient, an Australia-based expert in AI-fueled video analytics, according to the Japan Times, but the government and the police haven’t publicly confirmed whether they are using it to monitor the protests. As a response, demonstrators have started to wear masks, a method that was soon banned by the Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong High Court later ruled that the face mask ban was unconstitutional, a decision which is now under attack by Beijing top legislature who consider they are the sole authority to decide what is constitutional or not in Hong Kong.

While China is known for having implemented facial recognition on a large scale, the China Daily, an English-language daily belonging to the Communist Party of China, is opening the debate on facial recognition. They cite the lack of legal framework to limit the use of technology by public and commercial entities as a major concern. Facial recognition is said to be part of the widescale “Social Credit System,” a government plan to attribute to each citizen a social credit score that will drive individual rights.

China is also a giant exporter of facial recognition systems, from hardware to software, artificial intelligence and consulting in setting up government systems. Leading companies in this field include SenseTime, Megvii, Hikvision, CloudWalk, Intellifusion, Yitu and a few others, which participate in the national priority to become the AI world leader. Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Malaysia, Zimbabwe are among the countries that have plans to set up nationwide facial recognition systems using Chinese technology.

Russia is now launching one of the world’s largest facial recognition networks, according to the Moscow Times. The government is setting up a network of AI-connected cameras using neural network image processing to identify, track and blacklist individual suspects. Reportedly, over 180 rule breakers were detained and barred from 2018 World Cup matches after they were identified by facial recognition algorithms. Also, Russia’s Central Bank, has announced facial recognition software will govern consumer access to bank branches, online banking and government services like the processing of taxes, social security payments and passport renewals across the entire country. According to analysts, Russia relies on China for hardware, but uses its own algorithms and software for facial recognition analysis.

The Indian government is said to be preparing to install a nationwide centralized facial recognition system. The project is announced as a means for modernizing the police: its promoters expect a "sea change" in investigating crimes and the handling of criminals, according to Bloomberg.

In many cases, authorities argue that facial recognition is used for safety, against terrorist attacks, to find lost children and to catch dangerous criminals, but it is easy to derive a mass surveillance program from these tools. Different governments have different ways to communicate about the topic, however many of them are leaning towards more technology use to progress in the direction of a massive population control.

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