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Your face on record

Despite what tech companies and governments say on privacy, fairness, etc, facial recognition technology is here to stay

Your face on record
More than 80% of all travelers now entering the US are verified by facial recognition.

By Siddharth Pai

A recent article in the New York Times detailed the use of facial recognition by immigration officials in US airports. According to the article, more than 80% of all travelers now entering the US are verified by facial recognition. Frankly, this statistic shocked me, for reasons I will elaborate on later in this column.

But first, to set the context—some years ago, the US had started using a system for verifying incoming travelers by using a combination of two methods: one, mobile apps that allowed them to upload their passport details online, and two, a self-service kiosk that travelers interacted with upon entry which allowed the US’s Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to use its own software to verify the traveler’s passport details. This was significantly quicker than standing in line, sometimes for hours, to have one’s passport verified by a CBP officer before being allowed to enter the country.

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The kiosks first started becoming available in Chicago in 2013, but, very soon, had proliferated to every major US port of entry. US citizens and  citizens of select countries deemed OK by the US government for visa-free travel into the US had access to these kiosks. For them, entry into the country had become a simple and convenient process. 

For obvious reasons, these kiosks were much praised by those who could use them.

Surprisingly, these kiosks have now largely disappeared from US airports. In 2018, the CBP started installing cameras in its officers’ booths as part of a programme that required a biometric entry-exit system for foreign nationals entering the US. According to the New York Times, a 2017 order from president Donald Trump contained within his ban on visitors from many Muslim countries, sped things up. The 2020 pandemic further pushed the facial recognition agenda up as the CBP was looking for  more ‘touchless’ ways to go about its responsibilities around controlling access to the United States at that country’s airports. And now, apparently, four-fifths of entrants pass through facial recognition.

This statistic surprised me since 2020, the pandemic year when the CBP was quietly speeding along its own facial recognition agenda, was when Big Tech was making self-righteous noises about discarding facial recognition technologies for the ‘public good’. 

Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all said that they are either cancelling their programmes or placing holds on police departments using their facial recognition algorithms

According to a letter to US legislators from IBM’s chief executive officer Arvind Krishna, the company chose to abandon general purpose and analysis software for facial recognition. 

His letter stated that his firm does “not condone uses of any technology…. for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms…” 

Amazon issued a one-year ban on police departments using Rekognition, its facial search technology. And Microsoft said it was waiting for new legislation to be adopted before selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement organisations.

In mid-2018, Rekognition, Amazon’s open application programming interface for facial recognition, made news for showing startling results on a test run by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This organisation test-scanned the faces of all 535 members of US Congress against 25,000 public mugshots of arrested people and/or criminals. No member of Congress was in these images, but Amazon’s system generated 28 false matches, with obvious implications.

At the time, Amazon reacted that the ACLU’s tests were run at its default confidence threshold of 80%, and not at the 95% that the company recommends for law enforcement applications where false identification can have serious consequences. 

It appeared, in 2020 at least, that such nuanced arguments about statistical validity were passé, with Rekognition as well as its rivals from IBM and Microsoft being yanked from the market.

Meanwhile, China’s technology advances in facial recognition technology already imply that you don’t even need to first voluntarily put an image of your face on the internet for it to become accessible to law enforcement agencies. China’s surveillance of its own citizens is well known. 

It has also flung its facial-recognition net farther afield. Chinese “aid” money doled out to some Latin American and African countries goes into buying surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology from Chinese giants such as Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua. 

Both firms are banned from selling their equipment to the US government and its law enforcing agencies. Many of their cameras also use chips from telecom giant Huawei, which is also non grata in the US.

In 2020, other companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google that routinely use face recognition technology were conspicuously absent from the conversation. 

So were well-funded start-ups such as Clearview AI, whose technology at the time was being used by over 2000 law enforcement agencies and companies around the world. Clearview claimed at the time to have scraped more than 3 billion photos off the internet, including from popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. Allegedly, it retained those photos in its database even after users delete them or take their accounts private, though one doesn’t know for sure.

What is sure however, is that the CBP says that photos of US citizens that are taken at airports are not retained in any of its databases, while those of foreign visitors may well be—so that the CBP is able to police such things as visitors who overstay. 

What is also certain is that despite lip service being paid by governments and tech firms alike to privacy and wrongful profiling, facial recognition technology is here to stay.

(The author Technology is a consultant & venture capitalist. Views expressed are personal)

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First published on: 25-10-2022 at 05:00 IST