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Facial recognition: is it an ethical practice?

Though most regular users see facial recognition technology (FRT) as a simple solution to unlocking their phones and laptops without needing to memorize lengthy passwords, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Private companies, governments, law enforcement agencies, and others have started massively relying on facial recognition to identify individuals in photos, videos, and real-time for different purposes.

Private companies could do it to recognize customers and offer personalized solutions based on previous business-customer interactions. Governments could do it to streamline processes at security checkpoints, for instance, while law enforcement could do it to identify criminals and make arrests.

So far, facial recognition technology has been put to good use, even helping the police in New Delhi identify and find nearly 3 thousand missing children.

However, there are rising ethical concerns that should be noticed by the public and by the public and private entities investing in FRT. Let’s look.

Facial recognition and racial bias

Facial recognition systems have come a long way over just a few years, boasting astonishing accuracy rates of 99.97%. While this might seem slightly short of perfect at first glance, it presents significant problems.

These accuracy rates are under ideal conditions – when the reference and original photos display consistency in lighting and positioning and where both images are apparent. Even the best FRT systems experience a massive drop in their accuracy rates when trying to match mugshots, for instance, with live photos from security cameras.

The problem is even greater considering that the accuracy rates are the highest for middle-aged white men. The elderly, people of colour, women, and children get misidentified the most often, with error rates being highest for women of colour.

This racial bias in FRT systems can cause severe problems, leading to wrongful incarcerations, legal issues, and more.

Concerns over mass surveillance

Regardless of race, there are growing concerns over mass surveillance with FRT and its implications. Facial recognition, data analytics, and the growing presence of cameras in public and private areas pose risks to liberty and privacy.

Though the typical argument for mass surveillance is that you have nothing to worry about if you’re doing nothing wrong, things aren’t as straightforward as that.

One of the pillars of democracy, for instance, is the ability to gather and voice your support or opposition to public issues. However, mass surveillance could put those peacefully protesting in opposition to the current government at risk.

Their behaviours could be identified as problematic. Governments could use facial recognition technology to identify “problematic” individuals, threaten them, and more. For instance, the way the UK police uses facial recognition has been a concern for many citizens. And a recent study showcased that the police do not use facial recognition ethically in public spaces.

Issues with transparency and obtaining consent

Of course, one of the main ethical issues of FRT is the lack of consent and transparency. The public rarely receives a notification or can offer consent to being monitored in public.

Though most people are used to surveillance cameras in stores, shopping malls, and banks, there’s a significant difference between simply monitoring behaviours and using FRT to identify precise individuals and keep an eye on them.

Another issue is the use of publicly available data from social media, for instance, to train facial recognition systems – as many suspected was the case with the viral 10-year challenge on Facebook in 2019.

Data privacy concerns

The lack of transparency also leads to data privacy concerns. Law enforcement agencies, for example, can monitor and track the public using facial recognition technology. However, there is a lack of regulations that govern how these agencies monitor the public or store people’s private data.

That leaves too much room for errors, data leaks, breaches, etc. Public safety and security are put into question, especially considering that many of the agencies using FRT have notoriously poor data storage practices.

Before FRT can be ethically deployed, it’s critical to develop regulations that eliminate vulnerabilities and ensure excellent data encryption and safe storage.

Anonymity and privacy becoming a priority

Most members of the public are aware that there’s no such thing as 100% anonymity, especially online. Companies can track users’ online behaviours, collect sensitive data, use the information for marketing purposes, and more. Therefore, people have become more aware of tracking practices online.

So, users start paying attention to products’ privacy policies and their grasp on personal information. A Virtual Private Network has also become a popular choice for anyone wishing to become more private online.

For instance, a VPN for PC works like any other program you install. You simply connect to remote servers, and the application does all the work for you. It protects users by encrypting their internet traffic and stopping IP-based tracking.

Just like companies can track a user’s online behaviours, they can track their real-world behaviours using facial recognition technology. The only difference is that, in the real world, citizens have limited protections available.

Final thoughts

As things currently stand, facial recognition technology is in the grey area of ethics. It can certainly prove to be beneficial, but there are no regulations in place that can dispel the concerns and ensure the safety and security of the members of the public.