Facial Recognition: More Than Faces

July 29, 2021

Facial recognition software is not just for law enforcement anymore. Israel-based firm AnyVision’s clients include retail stores, hospitals, casinos, sports stadiums, and banks. Even schools are using the software to track minors with, it appears, nary a concern for their privacy. We learn this and more from, “This Manual for a Popular Facial Recognition Tool Shows Just How Much the Software Tracks People” at The Markup. Writer Alfred Ng reports that AnyVision’s 2019 user guide reveals the software logs and analyzes all faces that appear on camera, not only those belonging to persons of interest. A representative boasted that, during a week-long pilot program at the Santa Fe Independent School District in Texas, the software logged over 164,000 detections and picked up one student 1100 times.

There are a couple privacy features built in, but they are not turned on by default. “Privacy Mode” only logs faces of those on a watch list and “GDPR Mode” blurs non-watch listed faces on playbacks and downloads. (Of course, what is blurred can be unblurred.) Whether a client uses those options depends on its use case and, importantly, local privacy regulations. Ng observes:

“The growth of facial recognition has raised privacy and civil liberties concerns over the technology’s ability to constantly monitor people and track their movements. In June, the European Data Protection Board and the European Data Protection Supervisor called for a facial recognition ban in public spaces, warning that ‘deploying remote biometric identification in publicly accessible spaces means the end of anonymity in those places.’ Lawmakers, privacy advocates, and civil rights organizations have also pushed against facial recognition because of error rates that disproportionately hurt people of color. A 2018 research paper from Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru highlighted how facial recognition technology from companies like Microsoft and IBM is consistently less accurate in identifying people of color and women. In December 2019, the National Institute of Standards and Technology also found that the majority of facial recognition algorithms exhibit more false positives against people of color. There have been at least three cases of a wrongful arrest of a Black man based on facial recognition.”

Schools that have implemented facial recognition software say it is an effort to prevent school shootings, a laudable goal. However, once in place it is tempting to use it for less urgent matters. Ng reports the Texas City Independent School District has used it to identify one student who was licking a security camera and to have another removed from his sister’s graduation because he had been expelled. As Georgetown University’s Clare Garvie points out:

“The mission creep issue is a real concern when you initially build out a system to find that one person who’s been suspended and is incredibly dangerous, and all of a sudden you’ve enrolled all student photos and can track them wherever they go. You’ve built a system that’s essentially like putting an ankle monitor on all your kids.”

Is this what we really want as a society? Never mind, it is probably a bit late for that discussion.

Cynthia Murrell, July 29, 2021

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