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Facial Recognition Technology and the end of anonymity

In brief
  • Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) is mainstream, with free apps. 
  • What’s possible is both incredible and disturbing. 
  • Privacy concerns and mistaken identity are major drawbacks to FRT. 
  • Major grocery chains are using FRT to stop crime. 
  • Police have FRT that can identify scars and tattoos. 
  • The Government has been slow to implement the necessary framework and guidelines to ensure the tech is used responsibly.

The future is now… 

PimEyes is a Polish company on the front edge of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) that showcases how far (and unsettling) the tech has come. 

The free app allows users to scour the web for a person’s image based on a single image. From that you often have enough information to contact them.The privacy risks are serious. 

And that’s just one app. FRT has permeated into many aspects of everyday life from grocery shopping to police surveillance.  

The growing use of FRT

FRT, which uses artificial intelligence to identify individuals, is reaching new levels of sophistication and becoming more commonplace throughout New Zealand and the world. 

Here in NZ, Police have a new FRT system able to recognise scars and tattoos in addition to facial features. 

FRT is being used by major grocery chains in NZ in efforts to curb rising crime including assault and shoplifting. 

Many airports overseas use FRT instead of your ID for boarding and there’s talk of rolling out the technology to facilitate trans Tasman travel between NZ and Australia. 

A lack of framework to guide the use of FRT presents privacy concerns

Notably, Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has warned of the potentially negative impact of FRT. He cautioned against “mass surveillance of our public spaces, destroying any concept of privacy.”

In New Zealand, Police are not using FRT to scan live footage. Instead, they’re using it to run checks against databases of photographs in attempts to find a match. 

The issue is that Police are using FRT without a formal framework guiding its use despite being urged to put one in place  in order to avoid being seen as “cavalier” about oversight. 

Michael Webster, NZ’s Privacy Commissioner, has raised concerns about the use of the technology through a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) issued prior to the technology being introduced. The PIA made seven recommendations including limiting access to who would use the technology. 

However, the rollout has commenced without all the recommendations being fully implemented. 

In an article for the Herald, Thomas Beagle, chairman of  the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, said it suggests a disconnect between those who wrote the policy for the systems and those who put the systems in place.

A joint research project called Facial Recognition Technology in New Zealand: Towards a legal and ethical framework makes several recommendations to reign in unchecked use of FRT by the Government in an effort to prevent abuse. 

I’ve got nothing to hide so what’s the problem? 

There have been several incidents  of people being wrongly convicted for crimes they didn’t commit because of an overreliance on FRT. The costs to individuals dragged through the court system can be massive in money, time, and reputation. 

The use of FRT is a valuable tool to recognise threats, but it raises the age old question “Who watches the watchers?”

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