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You Need to Know About Facial Recognition’s Dark Side

December 18, 2020 - Emily Newton

Facial recognition technology was little more than sci-fi not long ago, but it’s everywhere now. People use these features every day, from unlocking their smartphones to entering their houses. As it becomes more prevalent, though, some people worry about its potential.

Any technology as disruptive as facial recognition will come with some pros and cons. If it can revolutionize the way people live, for the better, there’s nearly equal potential for misuse. It’s critical to understand this dynamic before diving into the adoption of any technology.

Since facial recognition could be a $9.99 billion market by 2025, people should start thinking about its ups and downs. Here’s a rundown of both.

Facial Recognition for Good

These technologies are still in their early stages, so they still have a lot of room to grow. As they develop, their potential for helping people across all aspects of life keeps growing. In some areas, they’re already an everyday technology, and they’ll only become more so in the future.

Facial recognition wouldn’t have become so popular so fast if it didn’t hold tremendous potential for good. It’s already helping people and companies alike stay safe and streamline some processes. Here’s a closer look.

Security

Most of these technologies’ potential is in security, from public safety to home protection. They make many security processes safer and easier, and it shows in their adoption rates. Roughly 41% of smartphone owners use biometrics like facial recognition for authentication, compared to just 27% in 2019.

A hacker can guess your password to get into your accounts, but they can’t steal your face. With these technologies, you can get into your phone in public without anyone seeing you type in a password. That advantage makes these features ideal for things like bank accounts or social media pages.

On a broader level, this technology can improve public safety through use in police departments or airport security. If cameras in banks or airports can identify wanted criminals or suspects, they can help prevent crimes. They can alert security staff if they may need to watch someone more closely.

If someone does commit a crime, facial recognition will help catch the criminal sooner. Police could use these systems to identify the perpetrator and use other cameras to find them. Other cameras could recognize them and alert nearby officers of their location.

Public Health

Other authentication measures like passwords and fingerprinting may come with some health risks. If hundreds of people have to touch the same surface at a bank, immigration office or airport, they could spread germs. Since facial recognition processes are touchless, they enable people to avoid some potential health hazards.

Conditions like ringworm and staph infections can spread through contaminated surfaces, making high-touch objects potentially risky. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for better public health standards, too. Touchless authentication can help avoid these diseases and offer assurance to people concerned about sickness.

The health applications of these technologies go beyond fighting contagious diseases, too. Hospitals can use them for patient identification and verification, streamlining the registration process and preventing medical errors. Without them, hospitals can get patient data mixed up or have unnecessarily long wait times.

Accessibility

Using your face to unlock your phone instead of typing in a password can be much faster. As a result, communicating or checking bank info doesn’t take as much time, either. Perhaps more importantly, though, the convenience of facial authentication improves accessibility for people with disabilities.

People with some musculoskeletal disorders or injuries may have difficulty using traditional means of verification. Being able to unlock their phones and access accounts by merely looking at a screen is a tremendous help. It can make conveniences like mobile banking more accessible for people technology often marginalizes.

The Dark Side of Facial Recognition

For all of facial recognition technology’s advantages, its use comes with some dubious implications, too. With these features becoming more commonplace by the minute, their potential downsides are more relevant than ever. Without careful implementation and regulation, these technologies could lead to some considerable privacy and security risks.

Many of these downsides aren’t hypothetical, either, but already playing out in the real world. Corporations and governments alike may need to address these issues before moving forward with broader adoption. Here are three of the most pressing concerns with facial recognition technology.

Privacy Issues

Striking a balance between privacy and security isn’t a problem unique to facial recognition. The topic comes up in virtually every discussion about modern data gathering, but these technologies take it to another level. When the data in question is your face, what becomes of your privacy?

The Chinese government uses this technology to profile and track Uighur Muslims, a minority in the region. The same government has infamously imprisoned these people in prison camps for their faith and cultural identity. Under an oppressive regime, facial identification tech quickly becomes a tool for suppressing citizens.

Use cases don’t have to be that extreme to be a cause for concern, either. If every camera in a city can recognize who you are, your location and behavior are hardly ever private. People, either in the government or a business, could locate you virtually anywhere you go.

Since there are no federal regulations in place about facial recognition, companies and governments could use it for virtually anything. These issues have become prevalent enough that cities throughout the U.S. are restricting the technology. In most of the U.S., though, no such legislation is in place.

Criminal Justice

The use of facial identification in the legal system is particularly concerning. While these technologies can help catch criminals and improve safety, they’re not perfect. Any mistakes in these systems, however small, can have substantial consequences in the realm of criminal justice.

In January, Detroit police arrested and accused an innocent man because of faulty facial recognition. The police’s identification system incorrectly matched his driver’s license photo to surveillance footage of a burglar. Police let him go after his innocence became clear, but this incident makes a strong case against the technology.

A recent study found that Asian and African American people are 100 times more likely to be misidentified by these systems. At its current level, these technologies aren’t as accurate at identifying people with darker skin. As a result, their use in criminal justice could intensify issues of racial injustice.

Bias is an issue with almost any AI application. Algorithms themselves aren’t prejudiced, but the people who create them carry innate biases. As a result, AI programs could exaggerate these prejudices as it teaches itself with the innately biased information it’s given.

Vulnerability

Data vulnerability is a growing concern as companies start to gather more information about their customers. If the data at hand is people’s faces, any cybersecurity breaches could be disastrous. If a hacker infiltrated a facial recognition system, it could put those affected at considerable risk.

A criminal with access to a network of facial identification cameras could use it to stalk people. If they have data on their face and other identifiers, it would be relatively straightforward to commit fraud. Cybercriminals could open new accounts or take out credit cards in victims’ names without much trouble.

In February, these fears came close to becoming a reality. Hackers infiltrated a facial recognition startup with more than 3 billion images of clients. While the hackers didn’t access the photo database, this close call emphasizes these systems’ vulnerability.

Adopting a More Careful Approach to Innovation

Technology itself is neither good nor bad. It seems to depend on how people use it. Facial recognition has immense potential for improving people’s lives, but it also comes with considerable risks. In light of these dangers, people should be more careful about adopting these technologies.

For people to experience the full advantages of this tech, they need to avoid any associated risks. Facial identification can be a life-saver, but only if people ensure it’s not also a tool for harm. This technology can change the world, but whether that’s for good or ill depends on human intentions.

Featured Image Credit: gstudioimagen via Freepik

Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist. She is the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized.

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