Skip to main content

How facial recognition can play a positive role when used responsibly

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Anton Watman)

Facial recognition has been named as an epidemic of our time as campaigners warn against facial recognition use in shopping centres, museums, conference centres and other private spaces around the UK. Its legal implications are a hot topic around the world, in the US, for example, the government has recently dropped the use of facial recognition of US citizens in airports at US borders.

Like much technology of the 21st century, pessimism reigns around the topic of facial recognition. Other sectors in this generation of technology, such as social media - a medium initially created to bring people together through shared interests and positive interaction - is now better known for the invasion of privacy and a stimulant of depression. Even artificial intelligence, the foundation of many new processes that drive efficiency is commonly associated with bias and corruption.

None of us can deny that we live in an age where technology is at the core of a lot of what we do, and with everyday gadgets like smartphones, abolishing facial recognition or banning it completely would be, well, almost impossible. Rather than fight it, we should confront the debate and work towards building a healthy relationship with technology.

Too often people focus on the drawbacks of technology while overlooking the benefits that it can bring and facial recognition is a good example of this. The way that facial recognition has been communicated isn’t productive. DeepFace was described as “creepy, both Google and Apple had to fix bugs that made their products seem racist, and Amazon falsely identified members of Congress as criminals. It seems that when our face is involved, the potential risk of leaked or manipulated data become clearer and more frightening to users.

Media, business corporations and even and popular entertainment series, like Black Mirror, have presented facial recognition as creepy and intrusive, when really it is one of the most exciting technologies of our time that could bring a lot of good - if we put the right boundaries in place.

Embracing the good

Our face plays a crucial part in our sense of self, and that’s why we are more alarmed at the idea of technology gaining access and using our facial features for unknown purposes or in a poorly secured manner. How is that different than any other form of personal information we expose to the world? It’s not, really. Yet we seem to consider our face more important than our bank account. At the end of the day, responsibly handled facial recognition technologies are much safer than an unsecured online registration form. Just like any data handlers, facial recognition companies must have proper protections in place to ensure their databases are as secure as possible – and, importantly, they must communicate this to all potential users so they can be aware of how safe their face is.

DeepFake technologies post a long line of legal, political, ethical and social threats. Just a few months ago, New York legislators updated local privacy laws to prohibit “use of a digital replica to create sexually explicit material in an expressive audiovisual work” because the notion of someone doing that is very real. Along its many blessings, facial recognition has the destructive power to change the game for the worse and it is up to our society to create clear boundaries that will enhance the positive and control the negative.

In addition to clear and firm boundaries, we need to step up the security when it comes to facial recognition technology solutions. Currently, even the world’s biggest tech companies cannot promise that our face-related data will be 100 per cent secure. Google’s attempts to fight DeepFake videos included spreading fake videos, which means that more resources should be invested in these efforts.

As facial recognition technology becomes an inseparable part of our daily routine, there is no question that more advanced security solutions will enter the market and do their best to protect it. Blocking facial recognition may push it underground, meaning we see even more uses of DeepFake – and potentially even scarier technologies – emerging. So, it’s really important to embrace the good.

The right to take data

There is legal facial recognition in use that doesn’t ask for permission of any kind before storing a person's face. This is a concerning aspect of the facial recognition industry - and an aspect that requires immediate attention. Although some regulations have been put in place, like GDPR, which requires that personal data is not collected without an individual’s permission, the regulation is hazy in its discussion of facial recognition and still has a way to go with being fully implemented.

Despite the focus needed to help up the security around facial data permissions, there are a small percentage of cases, like in the law enforcement industry, where it is challenging to ask a person for their permission. The debate arises around the fact that law enforcement is increasingly using facial recognition to monitor public spaces when looking out for potential criminals so as to enhance police action. My take on this is that the only faces stored on these databases should be those of criminals, not everyday people and this technology shouldn’t be used to mine faces either as this isn’t ethical.

When used in this way, technology could help save lives. For this to be done in a healthy and ethical way, corporations and government bodies using it should clearly communicate their actions and reasoning behind them. Making it clear that the faces they are looking for and storing are people of interest on police watchlists would not only make people more at ease, but also help them understand the practical benefits of facial recognition in the society.

The dangers of facial recognition replicate those of many other pieces of personal information that escape our radar and have been manipulated, traded and used without consent. If facial recognition is the technology that can get us all to wake up, it could be a way of removing the blindfold concealing online privacy concerns in general. The changes in public attitude, discussion and legislation are a long time coming and the emergence of whichever technology can shift things for the better is a positive sign.

I am an avid advocate that technology has a positive role to play in the world we live in, however, people should have the right to take control of their data.  When used responsibly, facial recognition is an incredible thing. The fear associated with technology should not be allowed to drive the way forward in the 21st century. Instead, we should embrace these wonderful benefits that technology can bring and make sure we work together in the best possible way as new technology continues to become a more integrated aspect of our everyday life.

Gal Ringel, CEO and co-founder, Mine

Gal Ringel is the CEO and co-founder of Mine, a company focused on empowering internet users to know who holds their data and get to decide how it is used.