Today, facial recognition technology is prevalent in every corner of the United States and Europe – border crossings, police cars, stadiums, airports and high schools, raising public concerns about privacy and growing expectations of congressional restrictions. Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, who said in June 2019 that he was preparing legislation to crack down on software, said:
Face recognition technology poses a huge threat to The Privacy of Americans.
Then, on Christmas Eve 2019, a study released by the U.S. government showed that some software now recognizes white people more accurately than other people of color, which has to be said to perpetuate racial bias.
Patrick Breyer, a member of the European Parliament of the German Pirate Party, also told POLITICO, a US political news website:
Face recognition needs to stop before a fait accompli is established.
Face recognition technology is difficult to effectively contain
However, the containment of this technology has reached a stalemate. In the United States and Europe, regulatory facial recognition has been slow, for two main reasons.
On the one hand, the government is reluctant to curb the technology for safety reasons. Technology companies now largely control where and how face recognition is conducted, selling technology to police departments and embedding it into consumer apps and smartphones. Even with a bipartisan boycott of Democrats and Republicans, this is still the case in Europe’s most privacy-conscious countries, including Germany.
In fact, Western police and security forces are still testing and promoting the technology as a low-cost means of monitoring people – border checkpoints, police cars, stadium entrances, cameras and AI that can be identified by facial features, and some high schools in the United States and Europe even use them to identify students. And the number of such examples far exceeds the number of cities such as San Francisco that have a face recognition ban.
On the other hand, lawmakers’ resistance to the technology has been thwarted. In Washington, the House of Representatives had hoped to restrict the use of face recognition by the federal government through bipartisanship, but for some reason, banning facial recognition technology has stalled. In the Senate, proposals to limit federal agency use of the technology have also been slow to gain support.
One reason for the House’s poor progress is the death of Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in October 2019. Several senior Democrats and Republicans on the committee have been embroiled in months of debate over the impeachment of Donald Trump and the subsequent Senate trial, as his team appears to be preparing bipartisan legislation to limit the use of face-scanning technology by federal agencies.
In an interview with POLITICO, lawmakers from both parties acknowledged that their efforts had stalled. As Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the Republican leader of the subcommittee overseeing government action, put it:
There has been no progress, and the death of Elijah Cummings has put all this on hold.
At the same time, in the EU, the supreme leader has called for swift action on the regulation of AI, but this does not guarantee any binding restrictions on the EU.
As a result, the vulnerability has led to the emergence of facial recognition technology, such as Berlin’s main railway station, where an experimental project by the authorities has scanned tens of thousands of passers-by.
“Europe will have stricter restrictions on face recognition”
Still, Patrick Breyer says he believes Europe will end up with stricter restrictions on facial recognition than the U.S., because the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights gives every European citizen “the right to protect personal data related to it,” which would protect Europe from abuse of facial recognition, which the U.S. Constitution says is not a word. and will not do so.
He added that he had been trained as a lawyer:
In the United States, if you’re walking around in a public place, there’s basically no right to privacy. The opposite is true here – we have a fundamental right to data protection and information autonomy, which means that collecting and processing every piece of data violates our fundamental rights, so law enforcement agencies can only do so in accordance with the law and with permission.
At the same time, some technology industry leaders have seized the opportunity to set any possible global rules. In December 2018, Microsoft President Brad Smith made a rare statement that there are six principles to follow in the use of face recognition technology. In addition, Michael Punke, Amazon’s head of public policy at AWS, urged lawmakers to pass legislation that “protects civil rights while allowing for continued innovation and practical use of the technology.”
But for now, mass-scanning tools are commonplace, and the technology is no doubt popular with public and private companies.
Say goodbye to your privacy
In fact, companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google have embedded facial recognition features in their most popular devices, such as the technology that can unlock your phone or automatically tag friends in photos. Amazon has become the largest provider of easy-to-use face recognition systems to users including police departments and U.S. government agencies.
The demand for face recognition systems by government agencies seems endless. Across the United States, federal, state, and local agencies have been conducting so-called experiments for years, with the Federal Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection using facial recognition technology at selected entry points. At the state and local levels in the United States, police departments in Florida, Colorado and Oregon are already adopting the technology, and other departments are exploring its use.
At the same time, the situation in Europe is no different:
In the UK, two police forces have been testing facial recognition technology to identify passers-by in real time using street cameras. The French government has launched an ID card that enables face recognition in protest against a protest by digital rights groups.
Hungary’s Interior Ministry is installing 35,000 cameras in the capital Budapest and other parts of the country to capture faces and license plates.
Some European airports, including Lisbon and Prague, have started supporting face recognition, with passengers in the EUROPEAN union and Switzerland able to scan their faces through automatic border control systems to avoid long queues.
Matthias Monroy, a civil liberties activist working for the left-wing party Die Linke in the German parliament, said:
This is worrying, and with the power of AI and high-performance computing, this technology may soon prevent people from operating anonymously in public places.
Unsurprisingly, Elijah Cummings, then chairman of the committee, warned at a hearing in early 2018 that under current law, the government could “enter your face into a database that you don’t know to use in a virtually unrestricted way.” He later said that almost everyone, including Democrats and Republicans, had no problem with it.
Containing face recognition, road resistance and long
In the United States, the debate over facial recognition has focused on the government’s use of the technology. San Francisco became the first city in the world to ban local agencies from using the technology after the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that Amazon was selling its image recognition AI system to the police department.
The report also raised concerns in Washington.
In Washington, a coalition of congressional Democrats and libertarian Republicans, concerned about the impact of uncontrolled government surveillance, wants to limit the use of facial recognition technology by federal agencies such as the FBI, the Federal Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The top Republican on the House Oversight Committee said in August 2019 that committee leaders had explored a bill to prevent the federal government from funding any new or expanded use of the technology.
In addition, the committee’s new chairman, Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, said she wanted to reconsider the issue, but did not commit to pushing the federal government to suspend the use of the technology.
Even if such a proposal progresses in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, it could face opposition from moderate Republicans in the Republican-controlled Senate, many of which see emerging technologies as important law enforcement tools.
In December 2019, Senator Chris Coons told the media:
I don’t think it’s likely to get senate support.
In fact, in November 2018, Chris Coons teamed up with liberal-leaning Senator Mike Lee of Utah to introduce legislation that would require federal agencies to obtain search warrants before using face recognition for targeted surveillance. But more detailed proposals, such as those, have not yet received the support of any other co-sponsors or enough support in the Senate.
In Brussels, ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, promised to accept face recognition. As part of her commitment, she will establish binding rules for AI during the first 100 days of her term, which begins on December 1, 2018.
At the same time, this coincides with a series of rulings by DATA protection authorities in the EUROPEAN union. The rulings called for the careful use of face recognition (mainly dynamic face recognition) and urged the public sector to draft legislation to use the technology. In the past few weeks, privacy watchdogs in Sweden, France and the UK have all issued position papers on the issue, with French and Swedish regulators banning face recognition at high school gates.
Of course, the European Commission’s plans for AI do not necessarily mean that any EU-wide facial recognition rules will work. Despite the promise to code accepted legal practices, European officials are at odds over what AI-related laws should contain. According to senior officials, this may be more in favour of guiding principles than in hard rules.
That’s why courts and data protection regulators are likely to make these rules in Europe. At the end of August 2019, a British court rejected the first major attempt to restrict police use of facial recognition technology, saying it presented security advantages over the risks of privacy and personal freedom.
Legal experts expect european law enforcement rules to be introduced in the form of “after-the-fact” regulations, which will use existing legal grey areas to begin deploying the technology until a judge or data protection authority restricts or stops using the technology or makes provisions that comply with existing laws.
There is no doubt that facial recognition technology infringes on public privacy and freedom, but it also has to acknowledge the convenience it brings to the public sector, private companies and individual consumers. How to use and how to contain, is related to law and morality, worthy of our deep consideration.