How Facial Recognition Technology Threatens Our Civil Liberties

Facial recognition technology is one of the many areas in which AI is changing our society. Here Gwen Jones explores the implications it has for our civil liberties.

In the UK, we have become accustomed to the freedoms associated with a limited state. We vote as we please, we are free to speak our minds, and we maintain our innocence until proven guilty.

We’re also quick to point the finger at anyone who doesn’t abide by our model of a ‘free and fair’ society; China’s Communist Party, for example, is reprimanded constantly (and rightly) for its brand of surveillance-based authoritarianism.

It’s often said that while it’s easy to point out the flaws in others, it’s more difficult to notice the same flaws in oneself. And so it is for the insurgent use of surveillance tech in our Western, ‘liberal’ societies. Increasingly, facial recognition technology is taking on a prominent role in criminal justice, aiding the police force in both trials and arrests.

1984-style mass-surveillance is generally thought of as something reserved for far-off dictatorships. In reality, there are aspects of Orwell’s dystopian fiction which bear more than a little likeness to our own systems.

Of course, the renunciation of civil liberties in the name of national security is not new. Our political institutions are designed to keep us safe, all while attempting to uphold as great a degree of personal freedom as possible. It’s a finely-tuned balancing act and it’s not uncommon for the needle to swing out of line in one direction or the other. The expansion of police powers under Blair’s post-9/11 government, for example, was widely regarded as a lurch towards authoritarianism. But for a country that rejected ID cards and a national DNA database, facial recognition technology seems like a step firmly in the wrong direction.

A number of pilot schemes for facial recognition tech are currently underway in London, and problems are already starting to emerge. 

During one trial in January, a man walks past a facial recognition camera and covers his face. Despite the MET having released a statement which said that “anyone who declines to be scanned will not necessarily be viewed as suspicious”, the man was stopped, forced to uncover his face and photographed anyway. On getting angry – and who can blame him? – he was given a £90 fine for anti-social behaviour. Other witness reports suggest he was not the only one.

To a world where refusing to comply with facial recognition requirements – which effectively turn people into walking ID cards – ‘Orwellian’ really isn’t an exaggeration. This isn’t even to mention the issues the technology has had thus far with catastrophic inaccuracy; for instance, algorithmic bias means people with darker skin are less likely to be identified correctly, resulting predominantly from the fact that most of the software’s developers are white.

According to the BBC, at least three opportunities to test how the technology deals with non-white faces have been missed over the last five years. The Home Office’s response to these criticisms has so far been to reiterate that “the technology continues to evolve” and that its effectiveness is “under constant review.”

It’s easy to imagine a world in which the technology has been perfected, improving search accuracy and reducing the margin of error to almost nil. But is this really a comforting thought? In some ways at least, a mass surveillance network that works infallibly is almost more terrifying than one that does not.

Generally speaking, the benefits of any technology that interferes with civil liberties in such a way must be at least proportional to the cost incurred to these liberties. How on earth this will be calculated remains to be seen; one can imagine the ease with which this ‘proportionality’ could be successively requalified. It might be, of course, that the government of the day maintains its commitment to the proper and restricted use of this technology. But who’s to say that future governments will do the same?

It’s no secret that power isn’t easily given up once awarded. This begs the question: once the infrastructure has been built and the technology created, will we still be able to change our minds further down the line? 

We should think very carefully about whether or not this is the kind of future we want to live in, before embarking any further down what looks to be a one-way street.


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