The use of facial recognition technology has increased manifold in recent years. This growth was further catapulted by the COVID-19 pandemic for purposes like enforcing safety guidelines to contactless payments, etc. While it is a great technological innovation, FRT is often seen as a tool for surveillance and breach of privacy in the name of increased security. 2021 was the year that saw a sizeable number of controversial incidents involving FRT. We list some of the top ones in this article.
Facebook/Meta: Status of Face Recognition Tech
2021 has been an eventful year for Facebook. For starters, the founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would rebrand itself to Meta. Moving away from just a social media platform, Meta will innovate in the metaverse and related technologies. Around the same time the official announcement for Meta was made, the company also said that it would end facial recognition technology. In this direction, it would be deleting about a billion of its faceprints that were used as part of the facial recognition system for photo tagging. This decision was reportedly taken in the light of growing concerns about privacy and security threats that this technology poses.
However, just a few days after the announcement was made, it emerged that while Facebook will end its currently in-use facial recognition technology, the company will still continue to utilise it in its new form Meta. Meta spokesperson Jason Grosse told Recode that the company’s new commitment will not apply to metaverse products. In fact, Meta is exploring ways to incorporate biometrics into its metaverse business. Meta will also utilise DeepFace, a controversial algorithm, to power its photo-tagging recognition feature.
Clearview AI in Soup Again
Clearview AI, a facial recognition company, has had its share of controversies. The company which aims at building the biggest facial network has come under the scanner of authorities and activists alike. In a recent update, the Australian government has ordered the company to stop collecting photos taken in the country and remove the existing ones. Clearview AI has a database of more than 10 billion facial images and has been positioning itself as the ‘Google search for faces’.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) found several breaches of the Australian Privacy Act: collecting sensitive information without consent, collecting information through unfair means, not ensuring the accuracy of the information disclosed.
Uber Facial Recognition System
In March this year, the UK-based App Drivers and Courier’s Union (ADCU) and Workers Info Exchange (WIE) asked Microsoft to suspend the sale of the face detection API to ride hiring service Uber.
As per the union, there have been several failed recognition and identity checks cases to which Uber drivers are subjected. In some of these cases, the faulty system has led to drivers’ suspension and/or license revocation. Media reports also indicate that Uber Eats drivers also alleged that the tool failed to recognise their faces.
The company spokesperson said that these verification systems are in place to avoid any potential fraud in response to the allegations. They also said that the decision to remove drivers is not just dependent on the tool but also involves human review.
Facial Recognition & Indian Police
There has been concern among the privacy and security champions across the globe regarding the unabated and potentially unethical use of FRTs by police authorities. In India, Telangana has the largest number of Facial Recognition Technology, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation, a body that works extensively on topics of individual privacy and liberty in the digital age.
In May, one such incident gained much spotlight when Hyderabad police officials started randomly collecting photos of citizens. One such person, social activist SQ Masood, with the help of IFF, served a legal notice to the Police Commissioner, detailing how such incidents are illegal and violate the right to privacy. Police is only authorised to photograph people arrested or convicted of a crime, as per the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920.
FRT in School
Earlier this month, UK’s data and privacy regulated Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had to intervene when reports of schools in North Ayrshire, Scotland scanning students’ faces for school lunch payment was reported. At least nine schools introduced this scheme to enable contactless means of payment in light of the pandemic.
The intervention accompanied by massive uproar made sure that this system was temporarily paused, with one of the schools completely shutting down the system. The schools have brought back the previous PIN-based system.
From the beginning of the pandemic, an increasing number of apps and softwares have been used for school students. With a large part of 2020 and 2021 seeing remote learning, many schools adopted the highly criticised FRT systems to ensure regular attendance and undisturbed learning.
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I am a journalist with a postgraduate degree in computer network engineering. When not reading or writing, one can find me doodling away to my heart’s content.