Until last month, facial recognition technology seemed to be on a relentless march toward public acceptance. After all, the technology is already in use by police departments and governments worldwide, so there was a growing sense among the public of its inevitable spread and continued development despite occasional warnings of its dangers to civil liberties.
Several events have combined to upset the best laid plans of tech companies to foist facial recognition technology upon society:
- Increasing evidence from a variety of sources has confirmed that the technology is often error prone based on gender, age, and race.
- The revelation that a company called Clearview AI had scraped social media sites to build a database of more than more than 3 billion photos, which they sold to law enforcement.
- The nationwide call for fundamental changes to policing following the outrageous killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer.
- The announcement by IBM that it will discontinue work on its facial recognition software and its condemnation of other companies that offer this technology for mass surveillance, racial profiling, and violations of basic human rights and freedoms.
The IBM announcement noted that artificial Intelligence is a powerful tool that can help law enforcement keep citizens safe. “But vendors and users of Al systems have a shared responsibility to ensure that Al is tested for bias, particularity when used in law enforcement, and that such bias testing is audited and reported. Finally, national policy also should encourage and advance uses of technology that bring greater transparency and accountability to policing, such as body cameras and modern data analytics techniques.”
IBM’s new stance is significant because it also attempts to instill a new level of self-examination among tech companies. Other industry giants that have engaged in massive data collection for surveillance purposes “seem” to be heeding the message:
- Amazon has set a one-year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition system and invited Congress to establish stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology.
- Microsoft announced that it will prohibit law enforcement from using its facial recognition technology.
- A Google executive supported the EU’s proposal for a temporary ban on facial-recognition technology earlier this year, but so far the company has not decided how to proceed here. It remains to be seen if internal disputes among Google employees will result in a clearer response by the company, but at least the issue is being discussed.
While these companies are ingratiating themselves with privacy activists, members of Congress and an inceasingly concerned public, the fact is that the surveillance market is already huge and is predicted to grow to about $75 billion by 2025 in the U.S. alone. This is too great an opportunity to pass up. ClearView and Palantir are agressively pursuing this lucrative market and may entice Amazon, Microsoft and Google to quietly reenter the market.
Worth noting is that billions of Internet users worldwide are unwittingly complicit in fueling the surveillance industry. Most of us are eager to post details of our everyday life on social media. These details are packaged and sold to large corporations and government agencies so they can monitor, control and predict our behavior with increasing accuracy.
The use of social media is designed to be addictive too, ensuring that a continuous supply of information is available to fine-tune the algorithms that perpetuate ever deeper levels of monitoring, control and prediction. People who brag that they have nothing to hide are unaware that they have everything to lose if this technology is allowed to continue unopposed and unregulated.
Nathan Muller is the author of 29 technical books and over 3,000 articles that have appeared in 75 publications worldwide. He also writes articles, blogs and social media content for tech companies and their executives.