What harm could a ban on facial recognition do?
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.
Guy Woodcock, CEO of Montpellier Public Relations, has more than 30 years’ experience championing disruptive technologies and helping tech start-ups to reach the top of their industries. Here he examines how a ban on facial recognition technology may cripple efforts to reduce violent crime.
As the Metropolitan Police announced plans to deploy live facial recognition (LFR) on the streets of London to identify suspects of violent crime, many of us sighed with relief. Finally, our police forces are starting to take full advantage of available technology to help them crack down on violent crime.
In the UK, facial recognition has been used in trials by police and private companies as enhanced security and surveillance, and has had multiple successes in leading police to violent criminals in China, where the technology is embedded in its vast network of surveillance cameras.
While China is further ahead with the technology, in both implementation and attitude, there is no reason to doubt that in 20 years’ time, facial recognition capabilities will be an integral component of surveillance systems in the UK. Unless, of course, a ban throws us off track.
Although it is uncertain how a ban would affect the UK after Brexit, we can’t ignore that the EU is one of the most influential bodies in the world, and now that the EU Commission has indicated a firm stance against facial recognition, other bodies and members of the public are using the news to further fuel the negativity around this developing technology.
What instigated calls for a ban?
It’s true that facial recognition technology does not have a perfect performance track record. It has been widely reported as being less accurate at matching faces of ethnic minorities and women, and this is certainly reason to exercise caution rather than blindly trusting the technology. The Metropolitan Police claims that the facial recognition technology they intend to use is accurate 70% of the time1, but if influential bodies and the public demand 100% accuracy, it may be at the cost of a years’ long wait – some inaccuracy does not make these systems unusable or not useful, it only means that reported matches should be investigated properly.
We don’t have years to wait while violent crime surges at a terrifying rate. It feels as if we can’t go a fortnight without hearing of another knife attack, or another vicious assault, and the worst part of it is that it disproportionately affects young people. Communities are worried and afraid; something must be done.
Police forces are stretched too thin, having to cope with substantial loss in numbers of officers over the years, plus budget cuts and the rise in crime. Is it any wonder that police forces are recognising the immense potential of artificial intelligence and facial recognition to save them time and resources now that it is imperative to improve public security and safety on a massive scale.
Rather than reaching for our dusty copies of 1984, let’s consider how facial recognition technology could help to improve public safety and reduce violent crime.
How could facial recognition help in the fight against crime?
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.
How does facial recognition work?
The cameras that will be used in London will have targeted facial recognition capabilities. The system is pre-programmed with the profiles of suspects wanted by police in association with serious, violent crimes. The cameras will scan crowds searching for matches to those profiles. It will only alert police if it believes it has found a match and even blurs out the faces of every person not believed to be a suspect.
In every instance, the technology only raises the alert and cannot act on its own, therefore, every potential match will be checked by a human. Any mistakes can be rectified and handled appropriately.
Imagine 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 surveillance cameras with facial recognition technologies guarded us when out in the community, and brought police to our aid at the first sign of a threat to our safety. This is the world that facial recognition technology could help to build.
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, while violent crime continues to rise and UK police forces and the public miss the advantage that facial recognition could offer in protecting communities and bringing perpetrators 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