As consumer facial recognition software becomes more omnipresent, Microsoft’s call for regulation seems wise

On Friday, Apple will release the iPhone XS and XS Max with the XR coming in October. All these phones will partake in the annual ritual of being praised for their Appleness and criticised for the price, as per usual. These devices will also all ship with Face ID, a first for Apple which previously only offered FaceID on one device — the iPhone X. Other smartphone makers are quickly offering facial recognition systems on their own devices, from the mid range to the most premium.

As time goes on, it becomes more and more likely that your next smartphone will ship with facial recognition. If you’re more likely to use Windows 10 laptops, you’ll probably have some form of facial recognition on it too as Windows Hello catches on. Use Facebook? Your Facebook account already has facial recognition. The firm is using it to match users to their untagged photos. For the regular consumer, it’s magical in a sense, but also a little unsettling. Tech writers often explore the magical aspects of facial recognition software being installed on all our devices, but rarely the potential downsides. In other words, facial recognition is everywhere, but we haven’t really talked about it – not really. As techies, we’ve explored the fun parts of facial recognition, your phone unlocks super fast, your laptop does the same too. 

Microsoft’s Brad Smith has called for regulation of facial recognition software by the US Congress earlier this year, opting to open the debate in a move uncharacteristic of tech companies who are often resistant to the prospect of restrictive legislation and loathe to introduce the topic themselves.

 “Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression,” Smith explained. Acknowledging that facial recognition software was used for many quality of life-enhancing scenarios like the ines we cited above, he raised issues that had been overlooked.

“But other potential applications are more sobering. Imagine a government tracking everywhere you walked over the past month without your permission or knowledge. Imagine a database of everyone who attended a political rally that constitutes the very essence of free speech. Imagine the stores of a shopping mall using facial recognition to share information with each other about each shelf that you browse and product you buy, without asking you first. This has long been the stuff of science fiction and popular movies – like “Minority Report,” “Enemy of the State” and even “1984” – but now it’s on the verge of becoming possible.” Smith said.

For us in the year 2018, we don’t have to imagine this minority report like system. What we need, is to open a newspaper. In countries like China, such services have already been trialled. The country has been making use of such software to inform its social credit system which handles the way citizens can interact with society in aspects like housing, schooling, and travel.

“China plans to roll out a national social credit system by 2020, which will keep a record of citizens’ violation of laws and directly affect their ability to do things like get a loan or get hired for a job. According to the South China Morning Post, devices like the jaywalking facial recognition system will be part of this network to keep track of the number of jaywalking violations and change a person’s social credit score accordingly,” Motherboard reported in March.

In the more nominally free US, Amazon’s facial recognition software projects sparked ire from shareholders, who raised concerns about the number of ways facial recognition could be abused by law enforcement authorities in an open letter.

“Without protective policies in place, it seems inevitable the application of these technologies will result in Amazon’s Rekognition being used to identify and detain democracy advocates.” The letter read, ” Experience has shown repressive governments tend toward incarceration and torture of identified people who are opposing repressive practices, and surveillance technologies will tend to harden this circle of repression. South Africa’s former apartheid regime and its Bureau of State Security (BOSS), would have welcomed such a technology to augment the notorious pass system utilized to control the majority African population in that country.

On the one hand, tech companies like Apple have shown resistance to bending their security knee for law enforcement agencies, but there still exists no bill of rights that prevents facial data from being misused. At the moment, the only thing keeping your data safe with Facebook, Apple and Microsoft is that they say so. In Europe, the GDPR helps a little, but it can only go so far. It’s a gentleman’s agreement between you, and the companies in question.

“There will always be debates about the details, and the details matter greatly. But a world with vigorous regulation of products that are useful but potentially troubling is better than a world devoid of legal standards,” Smith wrote.

Without such assurances or standards, who can keep private companies or governments from sleepwalking us into a dystopia?

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