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If the face fits … arresting technology is here.

If the face fits … arresting technology is here.

Posted on 25th October 2018

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facial recognition technology

Be honest.  Who wouldn’t like to get through airports more quickly? All the faffing about, trying not to be “aggressive” with the people at check-in and security; wouldn’t it be far easier if technology were to take over the whole process? 

That’s what’s happening at airports in China. For some time, a number of Chinese airports have been using facial recognition technology to process people through security checks more quickly. Now Shanghai's Hongqiao airport has introduced the technology for flight and baggage check-in, security clearance and boarding, but only for those with a Chinese identity card. This is technology in action, making people’s lives easier.

Elsewhere in China, you can pay for your Kentucky Fried Chicken with facial recognition technology, while hundreds of ATMs in one part of the country use the software to reduce money laundering.  That’s good.  However, on the other side of the coin, there is a school that uses the technology to monitor pupils’ behaviour, as evinced by their facial expressions.

I Googled “facial recognition software” and found a host of companies keen to sell their services. It’s little over a year ago that Apple’s iPhone X introduced many of us to the world of facial recognition but the industry has clearly been developing its products for some time and they are now starting to be used in a variety of different areas, many to do with security and crime prevention/detection (it was used to identify the GRU agents behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury).  The worldwide market for this software was $4BN in 2017 and it’s expected to grow four-fold by 2026. Just over a month ago, Forbes in the States ran an article extolling the virtues of facial recognition, with only a passing mention of the downsides. And, in my opinion, there are some major downsides.

To return to China for example, there, huge outdoor screens at junctions flash up close-up images of the faces of jaywalkers who have crossed the road “illegally.”  These screens also show these people’s names and ID numbers. Big Brother, as we have written about before is clearly watching you in China.

However, before we get too hot and bothered about lack of freedom in dicatorships (although we should), it’s worth noting that in 2017 a US House oversight committee was told that, without anyone’s knowledge or consent, photos of some 50% of all adult Americans are stored in databases accessible to the FBI.  Moreover, as has been reported extensively, the technology does not always work correctly and, in particular, is less good at matching black people than white people.  More entertainingly, in July, Amazon’s facial recognition software identified 28 members of the US congress as having been arrested previously for crimes (we presume this was what their President would call ‘fake news’).

Does all this matter?  Yes, I think it does.  Do I want my children monitored at school by facial recognition technology?  No, I don’t think I do. Can we do anything about it? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that freedom to think what you want and not have it revealed to a government apparatchik by your expression isn’t important.  Privacy is precious and the rise of the so-called strongman countries (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, et al) without the checks and balances we enjoy in the west is a worry. There is something distinctly Orwellian about all this. Keep smiling for the camera!

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT

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