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Facial Recognition Technology: The Future of Tech or a Privacy Invasion?


Your face is unique. On a planet with a population of 7.67 billion, no one else has the exact same facial characteristics as you. Which is why governments and various organizations are utilizing facial recognition technology to identify people. 

When cameras were invented, Native Americans were wary of devices that capture and log our facial identities. They feared their faces would be stolen.   

Back in 2002, our only frame of reference for facial recognition technology was Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Well, things have come a long way, and life is imitating art. 

If you have a smartphone, chances are you have enabled facial recognition. If not, you have that option if you want to sign in without having to enter a passcode dozens of times a day. Our faces are becoming our new ID with today’s technology. 

Let’s take a look at how facial recognition software works, what it’s being used for, the problems with it, and the implications for the future of this technology. 

How facial recognition software works

There are 3 basic types of technology used in facial recognition:

  • Detection finds a face in an image. Think of the auto-focus feature on a camera. This simply finds a face, it does not identify the person behind it. 
  • Analysis (aka attribution) maps facial features and the relation of one feature to another. For example, the distance between the eyes, how someone’s chin is shaped, the distance between the mouth and nose. That data is then converted into a “faceprint.” 
  • Recognition is the process of matching an identity to a person in a photo. 

According to an article in the New York Times, Facial Recognition Is Everywhere. Here’s What We Can Do About It, “The detection phase of facial recognition starts with an algorithm that learns what a face is. Usually, the creator of the algorithm does this by ‘training’ it with photos of faces. If you cram in enough pictures to train the algorithm, over time it learns the difference between, say, a wall outlet and a face. Add another algorithm for analysis, and yet another for recognition, and you’ve got a recognition system.”

The next step is identification, where the software compares a database of photos and cross-references them to ID a person based on a variety of photos from different sources. 

Who uses facial recognition and for what? 

Facial recognition is everywhere. 

According to an article in New York Magazine, “If you’ve ever been tagged in a photo on Facebook or Instagram, for example, you belong to what is by Facebook’s own claims the world’s largest facial-recognition database, to which users add hundreds of millions of new images every day. The company’s facial-recognition algorithm, DeepFace, which is constantly retraining itself on those new images, is presumed to be more accurate than software used by most law-enforcement agencies.”

Apple, Samsung, and most other smartphone producers enable facial recognition so users can unlock their phones. 

Several airports are currently using biometrics to ID people. Those who have started rolling out this technology include Norwegian Airlines, Air France, JetBlue in one or two airports, and Delta in a handful of airports. 

Newer passports feature microchips that include a digital photo. When a traveler passes through airport security, a camera takes a photo and compares it to the likeness that’s pulled from the microchip to ID people. Passengers are spending less time in lines, and planes are being boarded more efficiently. 

Mastercard is testing facial recognition to verify a cardholder’s identity, enabling customers to simply glance at their phone to OK a purchase.

Of course, law enforcement officials have been interested in this tech from its inception. It’s a great resource for tracking and identifying criminals and locating missing persons. In 2011, facial recognition confirmed the identity of Osama bin Laden

These are just a few examples of the countless ways facial recognition is being implemented for social, consumer, security, and law enforcement purposes.

Problems with facial recognition

In the age of the Internet, the public’s awareness of the ethical grey areas in biometrics began in 2014 when Edward Snowden released documents showing the extent to which the US government was collecting images to build a database.

An organization called Clearview AI made news last year when it was revealed that they regularly ran their software against a database of photos scraped from sources across the Internet, including news sites, employment sites, and social media.

The ACLU and a handful of American politicians took on the cause to raise awareness of legitimate issues of the violation of privacy rights. Another issue is that facial recognition is becoming racially charged due to the lowered accuracy of this technology when it comes to identifying African, African American, and Asian faces. 

According to the New York Times, “The best facial recognition software has started to correct for this in recent years, but white males are still falsely matched less frequently than other groups. Some software misidentifies some Black and Asian people 100 times more often than white men. Labels are typically binary: male, female. There is no way for that type of system to look at non-binary or even somebody who has transitioned.”

Can your face be hacked? Yes!

In June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that hackers had breached the servers of one of its subcontractors and stolen travelers’ face data, some of which reportedly turned up on the dark web. 

Implications for facial recognition in 2021 and beyond

Like any technology, there are all kinds of implications both positive and negative for facial recognition. It’s good that our awareness is raised around civil liberties issues. Do we really want the government, Apple, Samsung, and dozens of corporations knowing what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with at any given moment? Is privacy even possible for anyone these days? 

When used for good, like solving crimes and locating missing persons, this can be lifesaving technology. But, like anything else, we need to make sure that our privileges are not being revoked in the name of safety, security, and shorter lines at the airport. 

Native Americans were right to be wary of devices that capture and log our facial identities. Their suspicions were not unfounded. 

As the headline of the New York Magazine article so aptly states, “There Will Be No Turning Back on Facial Recognition: It’s not perfect yet, but it’s already changing the world.”

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