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Facial recognition: policing our roads, but what else?

By Charles Essery - posted Friday, 6 March 2020


The traditional media tells us that China is ahead of the world with facial recognition (FR) technology. China has methodically harnessed two decades of advances in image processing chip development, distributed databases and AI coding. This technology is used to monitor and suppress the Chinese population, we are told. For the Chinese, your face is your 'Identity Card', just as unique as a fingerprint!

The oppression of the population and the capacity to quash human rights in China is the major focus for FR by the traditional media. The use of face masks in the Hong Kong protests reinforces this image. Yet few of us realise how advanced the technology has progressed behind closed doors of private research facilities in the West. The West is more advanced, it's just that our media finds stories of Chinese oppression more attractive. Now in NSW, the same FR technology is being used to fine mobile phone use in cars, with massive revenue potential. Just as in Chinese surveillance, your face is your identity, under the supporting 2019 NSW legislation.

Facebook's aggressive acquisition of FR related companies is extensive (e.g. FacioMetrics, Oculus VR, Bloomsbury AI, WhatsApp). But all the 'mega tech' companies are investing heavily in FR technology. FR can add value to tasks like surveillance, security, missing person investigation, marketing and social analysis. But of course, it can also be used for social engineering. Wikipedia defines facial recognition as:

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...a technology capable of identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame from a video source. There are multiple methods in which facial recognition systems work, but in general, they work by comparing selected facial features from given image with faces within a database.

Sounds simple, yet the technology is 'mind-blowingly complex' and computationally intensive. However, it's not the technology that we must understand, but rather its uses, governance, threats to civil liberty and beyond. Hopefully, that is something we mere mortals should be able to comprehend, with the guidance of our governing politicians and legislature!

Like fingerprints and DNA, facial recognition is a 'natural' identity card. Civil libertarians continue to fight the ID Card, although given our willing adoption of credit cards, smartphones and social media, I can't for the life of me see why. ID Cards are a thing of the past. With FR, your face is your ID. However, just like DNA and fingerprints, FR can get it wrong.

Proponents of FR are often internal Police and Border Forces, who understandably want to improve surveillance and track criminals in an increasingly complex world. Who could not justify using this technology if it stops violence, robbery or terrorism? However, it can be used to abuse, hinder and constrain democratic freedoms. In NSW, FR technology is initially supporting polices like the recent 'mobile phone while driving' laws. FR also monitors our international airports. Hopefully the pros will outweigh the cons, and the countries of the world will find a means of regulating, policing and managing the technologies' use. But are they ahead or behind the game?

Currently, there is no legislation that deals with the generic use of FR-derived data. With public security forces already undertaking trials across the world, it is assumed that our court system will adjudicate on any abuse, once we have delivered the legislation that is fit for purpose. Based on the legal systems' track record on regulating the digital world, I'm not confident.

Social media, being privately owned, are less transparent. These environments are already hard to regulate. As with other technologies, FR will attract the criminal fraternity, providing opportunities for identity theft, bribery, child abuse, extortion, etc. As with most technologies, they are probably ahead of the legitimate government security forces. If you use WhatsApp, FaceTime or Skype, who has access to the images and, can they use that for profit or alternative uses, such as identity theft etc? Imagine a world where social media embrace and embed FR technology into their existing or future products.

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How many of us have considered the consequences of FR's exponential application around the world? We may accept the stories spruiked by media regarding the authoritarian application in China, but do we understand how widespread it is in the West and across social media? FR specific activist groups have been established (e.g. UK based aptly named "Big Brother Watch"), and while they may often seem alarmist, their information may be educational and worth consideration. Don't expect technology companies to educate us! China can now track individuals within their extensive 'dragnet' purely by means of its FR technology. The industry spruiks security benefits, with examples being secure purchases, ATM access, building access and criminal detection. Apparently, there is a KFC outlet in China where you can pay using FR technology!

While FR is a highly complex technology, it is currently focused only on faces. "Avatar" was a much-praised movie that has gained cult status. But imagine the computing technology of FR being applied more broadly and with more complex AI algorithms and 'human' models. Take FR, combined with body, mannerism, style, behaviour, location and historical activity and you have created a 'blank avatar'. Then by adding all the data from online medical monitors we wear, emotional and relationship data collected from social media, spending patterns…. that blank avatar becomes more complete … a virtual model of you. It may look a bit like Max Headroom (the 1980s satirical avatar of an egomaniac, What if that virtual avatar does not match you monitored activity, will you be questioned because of your 'abnormal behaviour'? Will FR ultimately morph into a 'human recognition' technology?

Any technology is only as good/reliable/secure as the minds behind it. No matter how advanced FR technology becomes, mistakes will occur. You may think civil libertarians are overly alarmist/obsessed, until you yourself end up on the wrong side of the technology. George Orwell could not imagine the complexity of FR technology we will be exposed to over the next decades. However, his powerful message remains true.

Big Brother is alive, well, thriving and growing exponentially more powerful. He/she/it may be watching and analysing every wink, smirk, twitch, walking style, behaviour, attitude and social media persona. Embryonic avatars may already exist in the dark, hidden digital laboratories of our global megacompanies, awaiting the day when they are introduced as the latest "must have" product. How will this product be pitched and what if it's a product that might even be more like you…. than you?

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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