Facial recognition technology is fast, easy to use and requires no physical interactions. It should be the perfect tool for a pandemic. Using a few features, such as the space between eyes, lip shape and ear size, software systems can match one image to another or scan through an entire database hunting for missing children, security permissions or criminal suspects.
The glaring problem is that multiple tests show facial recognition algorithms have significantly more trouble identifying non-white faces than white ones.
At the end of last year the US National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted a test encompassing more than 18m images and found that most systems recorded more false positive matches for Asian and African-American faces. A test of the 52 most accurate verification algorithms also found they performed poorly for non-white groups. In the test unusual accuracy in identifying black faces was attributed to higher resolution images.
Inaccuracy of facial recognition puts non-white people at more risk of false accusations. This year the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against the Detroit police over the wrongful arrest of Robert Williams, a black man wrongly identified by facial recognition tech.
Yet the industry is still growing. By 2024 is it expected to generate annual revenue of $7bn, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. Amazon, Microsoft and IBM may have put limitations on their own sales but US police departments are more likely to deal with companies such as Clearview AI and Vigilant Solutions. Regulation is tricky. San Francisco had to amend a city-wide ban to clarify that police iPhones using facial recognition tech were permissible.
As the systems grow more ambitious they also become more greedy. More than half of Americans are already on a law enforcement facial recognition database, according to a 2016 study by the Georgetown Center on Privacy and Technology.
The surprise spur for restraint may be the pandemic. US federal agencies say masks worn to help prevent the spread of coronavirus could restrict the tech’s capabilities. Instead of boosting facial recognition, coronavirus could help to limit it.
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