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Why facial recognition matters

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“Have you heard about the new facial recognition system put in place in North Ayrshire?” my friend asks me rapidly over the phone in a tremulous voice. “They’re in nine schools and are meant to speed up queues.”

“Yes, I heard, but I don’t like the idea,” I told her.

“No, it’s amazing!” she insisted, and again brought up her experience of us queuing on campus last year.

Nine months after the pandemic broke out, the campus was open again, though there was only one medium-sized café open. Usually, there were only a handful of students milling around, because the college only allowed 50% of students to be there weekly. However, the place was always brimming with people at lunchtime.

At least three people stood in front of every shelf inside the café. My friend was perspiring.

“I’m almost running out of time,” she grumbled. Despite her efforts to get there first, she was stuck in the middle of a queue, waiting to pay for her food. The queue wasn’t particularly long, but to her it seemed interminable because it was so slow. After repeatedly taking her phone out of her handbag to check the time, she flailed about, struggling to decide whether or not to leave the line.

“I would have so appreciated that brilliant facial recognition technology that day,” she lamented.

Without missing a beat, I replied: “I’m more concerned about the compromises made by users in order to benefit from live facial recognition, rather than the convenience of cashless and contactless payment.”

Without a shadow of doubt, facial recognition accelerates the time-consuming process of queuing and could improve hygiene, lowering the risk of COVID-19 when people are buying food.

In an interview with Financial Times, David Swanston, the managing director of CRB Cunninghams (a company which provides cashless catering, identity management and online payment systems), argues that facial recognition provides a much faster way to recognise whether individuals are who they say they are, compared with card payment and fingerprints.

“In a secondary school, you have around about a 25 minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.”

David Swanston

On the other hand, there is the issue of whether parents of children subjected to recognition are properly consulted in advance.

To my dismay, only 3% of children and parents in North Ayrshire chose not to give consent for the new system. This 3% opted to use a pin code rather than facial recognition. According to North Ayrshire council, the majority of people were willing to embrace facial recognition due to the inconvenience caused by using pin codes. They also highlighted the fact that some pupils had even been the victims of pin fraud.

Some critics are sceptical that pupils were given adequate information prior to agreeing to these new measures. Regardless of whether young pupils were given the knowledge, I personally believe that they are unable to fully understand the issues surrounding facial recognition in order to make an informed decision, due to a lack of maturity.

I think it is worth noting that facial recognition technology is not new. Automated facial recognition
was initially developed in the 1960s. With the passing of time, it started to be used for security
reasons in places such as airports and biometric border checks.

According to Crunchbase, China has been the world leader for the funding of facial recognition companies since 2016. For instance, some schools in China have implemented a new system to give feedback on students’ concentration levels in class.

Big gaming companies in China incorporate facial recognition into games to avoid addiction for children in order to comply with the government’s policy over online gaming. When children reach their gaming limit, they are automatically removed from the game.

Apart from China, facial recognition technologies in countries such as the United States, Denmark, Australia, and Nigeria also seem to be flourishing. In particular, it has been adopted by restaurants and schools for cashless and contactless payment. For example, Caliburger, a fast-food chain in Pasadena,
California, has implemented a facial recognition screen to allow customers to pay their orders. Schools in the Australian state of Victoria mark students’ attendance by adopting a facial
recognition system.

The expansion of facial recognition has proved its economic success on the market, but can it really
make our life more convenient? And why does it matter if we are subjected to it?

Digital giants such as Google and Facebook take advantage of users’ ignorance and technology’s
opacity to appropriate their data, but the fact of the matter is that this has not taught people a lesson about the dark side of digital technology. Many people still choose to give away privacy to facial recognition surveillance.

The attitude of getting used to surveillance for convenience without thinking twice is extremely hazardous since it could let society evolve in a way that is no longer in accordance with democratic
values.

Imagine if all schools and companies were to adopt facial recognition to check students and
employees’ attendance respectively. When we are all subjected to the hierarchy of automation, we
lose a part of our autonomy. For instance, if a number of students decide to protest against school or
national policy or egregious school staff misbehavior such as sexual harassment, teachers might
decide to support the students by not marking attendance. But with automated surveillance, the
students and teachers lose their freedom to break the rules when they become unjust.

Consider how civil rights have been advanced historically. If Rosa Parks had not been able to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus, how could she have inspired others and become a pioneer of the civil rights movement? And if homosexuals had not been able to break the laws against same sex
relationships, how could the LGBT movement have taken hold?

It’s more than just a worry, as these systems slowly start to become part of our everyday realities.

Written by H.

Featured Image Credit: The Conversation

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