Facial Recognition Technology: Major Governmental Threat To Human Rights
MADRID — Facial recognition technology has spread widely in recent years. It has been used in various fields, from meeting people at airports and markets to using them like a fingerprint to protect mobile phones.
This technology could have become solely a means to benefit people, but governments have always been looking for subtly invasive ways to use modern technologies so as to spy on people and violate their privacy. This technology therefore raises concerns in many countries, including China, Australia and the UK, as well as in the USA, where a movement has recently been launched to limit the extent to which this technology may be used by government authorities.
Facial recognition technology has come to be used extensively. In the United States it is a way to confirm the identity of travellers. In mid-2018 it helped to identify the man who had killed five people in a newspaper office in Maryland. Through the same technology in Britain, two suspects were identified in the attempted-murder case of the Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
At the same time, the market for this technology is growing significantly. Its global returns are expected to reach 7 billion dollars in four years, as compared to the returns of 3.2 billion dollars in 2019 — that is, an average of 16% annually between 2019 and 2024, according to a research report by MarketsandMarkets™.
How does Facial recognition work?
The computer “recognizes” the human face by applying a set of mathematical rules — that is, face-matching algorithms within an artificial neural network — to a large number of facial images of different people in particular locations.
This process is done continuously until the computer can determine the identifiable details of the face. Then a corresponding process is performed on other facial images, with instructions that direct the computer to compare each image with the face of interest. The algorithms point to features that distinguish or match faces.
When installed in public places, the program that uses the technology performs a comprehensive scanning of videos all the time. It identifies faces in the frame of an image and then compares them with the data included by the agency that is applying the technology.
Countries using this technology
Many countries have begun using Facial recognition technology in various facets of human activity, leading to its becoming a threat to the freedoms and privacy of citizens, and to human rights in general.
Since Sunday, December 1, Internet users have had to submit to Facial recognition technology while registering to use mobile services. In this way, the authorities seek to gather the identities of hundreds of millions of people and force them to register on Internet websites with real pictures and names, to prevent anonymity.
This action was initiated in accordance with a law passed last September, whereby the Chinese government said it wanted to “protect the legal rights and interests of citizens in cyberspace.” China is a world leader in the use of this technology, notably in its census operations.
While the authorities claim that they seek to increase technical security through this policy, Internet users are concerned about the increasing amount of their data that is available to Chinese authorities, especially as the government exploits it to censor and prosecute dissidents.
The United Kingdom
British police have recently begun experimenting with high-tech face-recognition surveillance cameras. The UK is the European country that uses these technologies the most to identify people by their faces.
According to a media report, the subject of surveillance occupies an important place in Britain, and London is the most-watched city in Europe. The police have recently put pictures of criminals on the Internet and made them available to stores, to alert their owners in case a suspect passes near them.
The matter raises privacy and security concerns while aiding police work. At the end of last May, the British law enforcement agency announced that it had cooperated with NEC to test the AFR technology during the Champions League finals in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
Police officers monitored the movement of people at major sites in and around the city centre. Several camera locations were established in order to identify the people on the police watch list, either as suspects or as missing or important persons.
This is not the first time the technology has been used by police. In 2015, Leicestershire Police scanned the faces of 90,000 “Download Festival” pioneers and verified their presence in the list of wanted criminals across the country.
Facial recognition technology is widely used by US law enforcement agencies. According to a 2016 study published by researchers at the Georgetown University Center for Privacy and Technology, the faces of about half of the American adult population, or about 117 million Americans, were included in a law-enforcement face recognition program.
In April 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security stated that it expects to use face recognition technology for 97% of departing travellers within the next 4 years.
This technology was being used in several American airports in 2017, and the number of these airports reached 15 by the end of 2018. The facial recognition system scans passengers at their departure gate, and the images are compared with data on passports and entry visas.
Last May, however, San Francisco became the first American city to ban the use of this technology in city departments and police headquarters, after the city council approved a decree to prohibit it and to stop secret surveillance.
In October 2019, France announced that it would be the first European country to use Facial recognition technology to give citizens a secure digital identity, justifying it as “aiming to increase the effectiveness of the country’s performance” after testing the program for six months.
The French Ministry of the Interior said that the Alicem system is an application that allows “everyone who decides to use it to confirm their identity on the Internet safely” and that will allow users to access a variety of services, including bank accounts and tax returns, through facial recognition.
However, the French data watchdog, CNIL, warned that this program violated the approval rules adopted by the European Union, as this technology does not provide any alternative to digital facial identification to access several services.
Moreover, fears were raised about the transition to this system and about its conformity with government security standards when a group of hackers penetrated the application. The fact that they were able to do so within one hour dealt a painful blow to assurances that this technology was free of weaknesses.
Nevertheless, the French government has insisted on the necessity of resorting to this system, leading to a lawsuit against the state by a group of lawyers who aim to prevent the application of this technology.
Australia started using a Facial recognition system in 2017. The technology used by the Australian Department of Homeland Security has recently raised greater concerns, as it not only provides security and intelligence agencies with an effective tool to identify perpetrators of crime and quickly expose suspects involved in terrorist operations but could also lead to mass surveillance of citizens.
The technology in Australia collects and maintains photos of individual faces from various sources, including a database of driver’s licenses, passports and visas. Subsequently, in real time, this biometric data can be compared with other sources, such as surveillance camera records, to verify citizens’ identities.
Last August, as part of a comprehensive reform process, the European Commission announced its intention to create a regulation granting EU citizens explicit rights regarding the use of their facial recognition data. In addition to the restrictions stipulated in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU aims to limit the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology by companies and public authorities, thereby further protecting citizens.
A threat to human rights
The use of Facial recognition technology is risky due to its significant impact on human rights. It can violate the privacy of citizens and facilitate access to their personal information by authorities, who can respond by tightening control. Other concerns regard injustices due to potential inaccuracy of the technology.
The Facial recognition system works to scan and analyze the biometric data of citizens, regardless of whether they committed a crime or not, and then it begins to verify and search for people and gather their personal data. The government takes all personal information into account, ostensibly to make sure that a person’s record is free of crimes.
In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tested the facial recognition system of Amazon, as the system incorrectly identified 28 members of the US Congress as other people who had been arrested for crimes. This foreshadowed the possibility of other system errors, leading to the possible incrimination of innocent people.
Violation of privacy
This technology leads to violating the privacy of citizens, for it takes pictures of people in public places, and stores and analyzes the photos randomly. Thus the authorities can be aware of everything a person does in public places, effectively nullifying his privacy.
The system also gives permission to private institutions to see the results of this technology, as happens in the United Kingdom and Australia. This raises even more concerns regarding how informal bodies can be allowed to obtain information about citizens.
The system is mainly based on monitoring citizens through pictures of their faces. It allows authorities to gather detailed information about what they do in public places and how to track them down.
The Facial recognition technology has facilitated new means of monitoring that make the authorities aware of everything that people do in their daily lives.
The use of this technology therefore threatens the freedom of individuals to protect the privacy of their data, activities and identities. This directly impacts their freedom of political opinion, protest and opposition, and often leads to the persecution of political dissidents and racial minorities.
In China, for example, people are being apprehended because of ethnic difference. Uyghurs Muslims, for example, are oppressed because of their race and religion, which is different from the majority.
In November 2019, former US Attorney General Eric Holder began an investigation into the uses of technology to identify faces, as developed by the Israeli company “AnyVision,” after the publication of press reports about such usage by Israeli security to monitor Palestinians living in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.
The American network “NBC News” published a report stating that the “AnyVision” system was used to identify faces to track Palestinians in East Jerusalem, noting that “AnyVision” obtained “a certificate of appreciation from Israel for its security contribution.” This contributed to the company winning the “Israel Security Prize.”
The risk of penetration
There is another concern about this technology: hacking. Besides the potential invasiveness of an individual’s personal records remaining within an authority’s systems, once a face is identified, one is exposed to the risk of penetration at any moment. This is what happened in France, where face recognition technology was penetrated by the Hackers Group in just one hour, thus dealing a blow to the authorities who had prematurely assured data protection and citizen privacy.
Foundation in international law
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 12 of the Declaration also states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence. … Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
As for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 17 states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.”
In light of the significant risks of face recognition technology to human rights — particularly the right to privacy and freedom from control and traceability by authorities — in addition to the risks of hacking and unjust and unsubstantiated accusations of crimes, Skyline International emphasizes the following:
• Special laws must be enacted to regulate the use of Facial recognition technology, whereby only competent authorities are allowed to use it, with guarantees that it is not used to suppress human rights and freedom of opinion or to track opponents.
• The use of this technology must be restricted to vital necessities, such as applying just laws, protecting human rights, pursuing criminals, and helping people protect their data and information within the framework of digital security.
• Technologies of this kind need significant development so as to ensure that they are not vulnerable to hacking by electronic piracy groups, which can harmfully expose citizens’ data and diminish technological confidence. In addition, the development of these technologies should aim to increase their accuracy in identifying people’s faces within a just framework so that people’s rights are not violated. For instance, innocent people should not be tracked as criminals, as has occurred in the United States due to technological flaws.
• The authorities should ensure that this technology is not exploited by Internet companies and international application companies, such as Facebook and Google, to collect, exploit, and sell information.