Episode 009: Facial Recognition Technology

Today I’m going to touch on a tech topic that has gotten a lot of attention in the media for multiple reasons and that is facial recognition technology. The software has become increasingly popular in the last few years and is now being used in places like airports, concert venues, shopping centers and even by law enforcement. The industry for facial recognition technology was worth $3.2 billion in 2019 and Allied Market Research expects the market to grow to $9.6 billion by 2022.

While there are benefits to the software, like for surveillance and marketing, which I’ll touch on later in this episode, it has raised a lot of concerns when it comes to data and privacy. Let’s first talk about how exactly the software works.

Facial recognition technology uses a database of photos, such as mugshots and driver's license photos to identify people in security photos and videos. It uses bio metrics to map facial features and help verify identity through key features of the face. The most key feature is the geometry of a face such as the distance between a person's eyes and the distance from their forehead to their chin. This then creates what is called a "facial signature." It is a mathematical formula that is then compared to a database of known faces.

There is so much data floating around now between all the photos that everyone posts online and videos. All your Instagram posts and TikToks- all that data is going somewhere. And as I like to tell my father in law, just because YOU don’t have social media- doesn’t mean social media doesn’t have you. It stores people who are “ghosts.” and they can easily identify the relationship between posters and those ghost people to figure out who they are.

The problem most privacy advocates address is that there is a major lack of legislation when it comes to the technology and many believe that the benefits simply do not outweigh the intrusion into people’s privacy. It comes down to the question of ethics, which is a critical topic when it comes to facial recognition.

One of the biggest controversies this year, is the use of facial recognition for age verification. Back in October, Australia House of Representatives launched an initiative to try and verify age for online porn and gambling and verify that the person watching or playing was of legal age. There was another company using it in bars as well to identify patrons who were “underage drinking.” The company basically said they couldn't understand why anyone thought this was weird or an invasion of privacy.

Even worse, there was a program that was actually running the faces of those in porn and cross referencing social media to identify those that were in the videos. Yeah that doesn't seem like a major threat to anyone's safety or anything.

It leaves a lot open of what is “crossing the line” into complete invasion of privacy. Is it the 15-year-old boy at home just trying to watch porn hub?

A lot of major recognized names in the business have been under fire for facial recognition technology. Last year I wrote a piece for Forbes breaking the story on the Facebook 10 Year Challenge issue where they were accused of using those images to collect data to update their facial recognition. Though they never admitted it- who knows what they were actually up to. But everyone who uses Facebook and has tagged a photo before, knows that their facial recognition software is pretty accurate. I’ve even had it suggest a tag of someone in the photos that I was not connected with in my friends list- super creepy but kinda cool I won’t lie.

However, Amazon has been in even more trouble. They faced some major public backlash last year for providing cloud services to the US government, including law enforcement. More specifically, and I wont get into politics or views on this, but to ICE to enforce immigration policies. Which you can imagine was pretty controversial.

But believe it or not that isn't even the worst of it, they have come up with a technology that they claim that can help police “detect fear.” Yes, you heard me correctly on that….

They are using a system that is a branch of facial recognition technology called emotion recognition. It is a facial analysis technique that works by machine learning to look for certain features on a face and match that with emotional language. Such as a smile means happiness while a raised eyebrow could mean disgust or repulsion.

Not only have multiple academic papers regarding emotion recognition proved the system to be severely flawed, it is deeply concerning to be giving to law enforcement to be used against people. I don't know about you, but cops freak me out whether I have done something wrong or not so fear would be read on the face of many innocent people who just innate fear authority figures or have bad experiences with law enforcement.

Another major issue is with the accuracy of the technology and the issues that can come with inaccuracy. While for the most part, facial recognition technology is indeed pretty accurate, at the same time just a slight change in a camera angle or just a haircut can lead to an error in identification.

The major issue in this flaw is that identification can actually lead to wrongful convictions. There are many police departments in the US including NYC, Chicago, Detroit and Orlando all utilizing the facial recognition technology. And the FBI itself has access to over 500 million data points of facial identities. Not only can misidentifying someone lead to wrongful convictions, it can also be very damaging to our society by being abused by law enforcement for things like constant surveillance of the public. Currently, the Chinese government is already using facial recognition to arrest jaywalkers and other petty crimes that cause debate among what is considered basic civil rights and privacy issues versus protecting the public. Accuracy and accountability are necessary when it comes to the use of technology, especially regarding the justice system.

False positives are a massive problem plaguing the effectiveness of the system. London’s Metropolitan Police used automated facial recognition in trials in 2016 and 2017 and reported that more than 98% of matches wrongly identified innocent members of the public. Overall there were 102 false positives.

With the help of this technology, the government can track down the criminals. But at the same time, it can actually track down people like you: anytime, anywhere.

There is also a major issue when it comes to identifying people of color- especially women of color. The data and algorithms are just not as robust when it comes to these identifications. This is actually a major debate right now when it comes to facial recognition technology because recently Google had a study where they targeted people of color to have their faces scanned for their algorithm to improve on the reading of people of color’s faces. However, that then opens the question as to whether we should be improving on this by doing something as Google did- or not have the technology at all. Does it cross a line or is it just for research and science purposes? And then that opens the door for whether or not the software is innately biased or can be- which is a whole other debate.

The issue is that the technology is so new that there are no set ethical guidelines to it yet- which is a major problem. But can it be solved? That’s the true question.

But on the other side of it, one can argue that the technology can keep us safe. With the help of facial recognition, it will be easier to track down any burglars, thieves, or other trespassers. If they get the correct person that is, I suppose. And as for our personal data, facial recognition is being used to lock our personal devices like our iPhones.

Just last fall in New York City, police were able to apprehend an accused rapist using facial recognition technology within 24 hours of an incident where he threatened a woman with rape at knife point.

Another huge benefit of facial technology comes with the ability to find missing people, and recently very specifically missing children. In 2018, New Delhi police identified 2,930 missing children in just four days after launching a new facial recognition system. This means major success for the fight against human trafficking.

One start up called Marinus Analytics, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania- shout out to my hometown- has been using AI and Big Data exploration “to help law enforcement catch sex traffickers and rescue victims.” While she was studying in 2011 at Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, Marinus Analytics founder Emily Kennedy created a program called ‘Traffic Jam’ which purpose is to identify people that are victims of forced prostitution.The system extracts data in a continuous and real-time manner from “publicly accessible” websites like those that provide a contact with “escort girls”. It then creates a database from pictures, phone numbers and geo-tracking.

Identity theft is a really big deal now. In fact, it just happened to my husband recently and he had to freeze all his accounts for awhile until we got it taken care of. Someone opened a phone bill and bought a brand new iPhone off his social security number...in person at a major retailer and also applied for a loan at a furniture store. Facial recognition tech can help when you go to open new accounts to scan and make sure your face matches your social security number. It can prevent fraud and save a lot of people a lot of hassle- trust me- it is not fun.

On a lighter note, convenience is a big factor when it comes to utilizing facial recognition technology, like we talked about earlier with tagging on social media or just being able to open your phone quickly- but now you can even shop without having to go through the checkout line.

Overall, there is a lot up in the air when it comes to facial recognition tech. While it scares a lot of people, I definitely see both sides. There are definite benefits to the technology, but still an awful lot of work to be done before the technology is 100% used fairly and in accordance with human rights for privacy. And I’m also not sure that we will ever truly get there with how fast tech advances. By the time legislation comes out for one thing, the newest tech will already be on its way. This is definitely not the end of the discussion for facial recognition in general, but it is the end of my discussion on it for today- we will just have to see what the future holds for facial recognition technology.

Leave me some feedback on what you think of facial recognition technology and do you see more harm than good or do you think the benefits outweigh the negatives? Let me know your thoughts, I’d be curious to hear your opinions on this controversial subject.