Integration of new technologies is usually swathed in scaremongering and controversy, but facial recognition has had more than its fair share.
After more than two years of a global heated debate, the European Commission is now considering a ban on the use of facial recognition in public places for up to five years. It’s uncertain how much a ban would affect ongoing use and development of the technology in the UK after Brexit. What is clear, however, is that news of the considered ban has worsened hostility towards the technology worldwide.
Even if the UK determines its own laws around the use of facial recognition, the EU is one of the most influential bodies in the world. If the temporary ban is put in place, other countries may follow suit. A handful of states in the U.S. already have bans in place. This potentially cuts off markets for UK developers and increases competition in a negative way, with UK companies all vying for the same limited opportunities and bringing a lower combined profit back into the economy as a result.
A ban threatens the growth of the digital technology sector and innovation in the UK
The UK is currently a world leader in technological innovation. The turnover from digital technology was worth £184 billion to the UK economy in 2018.1 The industry provides countless jobs and services and attracts investment in UK businesses from all around the world. In a time of uncertain economic stability, the last thing we need is to have one of the pillars of our economy in any way restricted.
What instigated the call for a ban on facial recognition?
Facial recognition technology does not have a perfect performance track record. That it has been widely reported as being less accurate at matching faces of ethnic minorities and women is certainly cause to exercise caution, however, the greater issue is a historical one: people fear change.
This powerful new technology promises a revolution straight from the minds of the masters of science-fiction. So far, it has been used to catch shoplifters, by police and private companies as enhanced security, on iphones as an unlocking device and, in China, it’s even used to pay for items.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. It is entirely possible that, in 20 years’ time, facial recognition cameras will line every street and the technology will have absolutely changed life as we know it.
We need to change the way we talk about technology
New technologies are often presented as the villain, the latest tool to threaten civil liberties. But innovation and industry has historically transformed our country, and the rest of the world, for the better, with only a few exceptions. The first industrial revolution, the invention of the telephone, radio and television, computers and the internet have made it possible for the majority of people to achieve a higher standard of living and far greater social mobility than 100 years ago. What technology has contributed to medical science, academia, industry and law enforcement cannot be ignored in a debate on whether innovation and technological advancement has ‘gone too far’ or threatens civil liberties. After all, some of the liberties we enjoy today, such as social movement and knowledge at our fingertips, regardless of income or class, would not be ours without the technological advancements of the past.
So rather than reaching for our dusty copies of 1984, let’s consider how facial recognition could change the world for the better.
How could facial recognition build a better world?
Paying for items in shops and unlocking phones are arguably poor applications of a powerful technology with the potential to benefit people and communities in real, meaningful ways. The real value of facial recognition technology is its use in security, policing and as a tool to help reduce rising rates of violent crime in the UK.
Think of facial recognition as many extra pairs of keen digital eyes and an extension of UK police forces. Facial recognition cameras would be able to ‘see’ what our stretched police forces cannot. The capabilities of facial recognition include recognising people reported missing, tracking the movements of ex-convicts with restrictions on release to ensure they comply and identifying the location of suspects in serious, violent crimes. Having the technology ‘watch’ our streets could save police forces time and resources and provide the necessary intel on location for police to intervene if necessary, perhaps in time to save a life.
Current capabilities of the technology are deliberately limited to ensure that any decisions will always be made by a human. Any mistakes can be rectified and handled appropriately. If those who use and control the technology have a morally sound reason for doing so, such as the police using facial recognition to protect the public, there is potential for it to massively benefit society and improve safety in public places.
Image a world in which those who committed serious, violent crimes had no place to run and no place to hide. Imagine a world in which everyone could walk alone down the streets at night without fear. Imagine a world in which victims of both serious and petty crime could easily prove that the crime had taken place, who did it, and receive justice. This is the world that facial recognition and other advancements in technology could eventually create, as long as it is in the control of an organisation who wanted to use it to benefit public security and safety, such as the police, government and other law enforcement bodies.
To achieve such tight public security would mean increased surveillance and less privacy, which leads us to the main argument against facial recognition technology: aren’t we creating “Big Brother”?
The “Big Brother” argument doesn’t hold up
In George Orwell’s famous 1984, a totalitarian government uses 24-hour constant surveillance to monitor and oppress its citizens. “Big Brother” is the poster-boy for this oppressive regime, not the cameras themselves.
However, if anything can be taken away from the novel, it should be that it very much matters who has control over the technology and what it is used for. Use of facial recognition by private companies to track shoppers and their purchasing habits is not ideal and, arguably, a poor use of the technology. It falls under the category of ‘spying’, rather than ‘policing’ and no doubt that kind of use is at the root of much of the fear and concern around facial recognition. However, use of the technology in shops to detect shoplifting would be a far better application, as it protects shop owners and businesses. Ethical use of the technology is the key to unlocking the benefits and avoiding pitfalls.
Police people, not tech
It is imperative to acknowledge that there is a major difference in technology being used legally and in the way it was intended, and its misuse. This includes the handling of data or any retention of data the technology has gathered. How beneficial new technologies such as facial recognition may be to society, quality of life and safety and security, depends entirely on who uses it, who controls it, who holds users to account and whether existing laws and restrictions are effectively implemented.
There is no need for the UK to fall behind and lose its position as a world leader of innovation. There is no need for the public to miss out on the incredible potential benefits that facial recognition could offer in law enforcement and security. But there is a need to consider who should own and control the technology and restrict it to industries, such as law enforcement, where it is unlikely to be misused.
A years-long ban on the use of facial recognition means that we potentially hide the key to a better future based on only a few imagined outcomes. Even a temporary ban may have additional negative impacts: it could hurt the UK’s standing in the tech industry and its economy, while violent crime continues to rise and UK police forces miss the advantage that facial recognition could offer in identifying perpetrators of violent crime and bringing them to justice.
How facial recognition will shape the world we live in is currently undecided; we can choose to use it consciously and ethically to build a better world, but that means embracing the technology, not abandoning it.
By Guy Woodcock
CEO, Montpellier Public Relations