Privacy vs. security: The fight over facial recognition

·Senior Editor

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What's happening: Facial recognition technology is suddenly everywhere. Whether you're at the airport, at a sporting event or even just walking the streets of your city, there's a decent chance you're not only being watched, but also identified from your image.

Last week, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban its government, including the police, from using facial recognition technology. California's legislature is considering a statewide ban on its use in police body cameras.

On Wednesday, the debate reached Washington, D.C., as federal lawmakers from both parties expressed their concern about the potential civil rights violations the technology could pose if it's not properly regulated.

The debate has spilled into the private sector as well. Amazon investors voted to continue selling its technology to governments and law enforcement agencies, despite pushback from some shareholders. Microsoft has rejected police requests to use its tech, but has reportedly supplied it to a prison and a Chinese university.

Why there's debate: Facial recognition has a wide range of applications and there is anecdotal evidence that it serves some real benefits. It has helped police catch wanted criminals, may be able to assist doctors in diagnosing disease and has even been used to protect pop stars like Taylor Swift from stalkers.

While there are many uses for facial recognition, it also presents opportunities for haphazard application or outright abuse. There are few laws dictating where it can be used and what happens to the data it collects. The technology raises concerns of a surveillance state, and may violate the right to privacy. There's a strong push for regulation and transparency to ensure the public knows who is using the technology and for what purpose.

There is also evidence that facial recognition is less effective at identifying people of color and women, leading to concerns it may lead innocent people to be suspected in criminal or antiterrorism investigations.

What's next: For now, it will be up to individual governments and companies to decide when and where facial recognition is used. The Supreme Court may ultimately have to decide whether its use violates the Constitution, as some members of Congress posited during Wednesday's hearing.


Facial recognition technology makes us safer

"From terrorism to missing persons to crimes against persons and property, the ability of facial recognition and AI to greatly improve the safety security of our communities and country shouldn’t be so easily thrown onto the trash heap of anti-police bias." — Morgan Wright, The Hill

"Face recognition is already how many of us unlock our phones; in the future it will let us into our houses and offices without fumbling with a key or an ID card. It will help protect all of us (not just Taylor Swift) from known menaces." — Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal

Governments have showed a willingness to misuse the technology

"A dramatic range of abuse and bias has a result, we now believe that state, local, and federal government should place a moratorium on police use of face recognition" — Clare Garvie and Laura M. Moy, Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology

The benefits of the technology would be lost if it is banned

"This powerful technology requires oversight and caution to prevent it from being abused. But a ban would throw the good uses out with the bad ones." Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Facial recognition could perpetuate racial bias in policing

"The use of facial recognition by law enforcement to identify suspects raises particular concerns because of high inaccuracy rates and striking racial disparities in how the algorithms can correctly identify people." — Julie Bosman and Serge F. Kovaleski, New York Times

Regulation is a better path than outright bans

"Like all new technologies, facial recognition can be used for good or for ill. Regulating its use in the private sector will be equally challenging, if not more so. But it’s up to policymakers to strike the right balance. Simply banning a tool with so much promise amounts to an abdication of that responsibility — and threatens to let fear stand in the way of real progress." — Editorial, Bloomberg

The courts are the only effective route to regulating its use

"Let us hope that Congress and the courts understand that facial recognition software ramps up the ability of its users to keep track of us, and impose sensible limits on its use. Otherwise, China really is the model of the future." — John Torpey, Forbes

Fears of a world without privacy have already come true

"There is no need to imagine a dystopian surveillance state in which a government can follow its citizens everywhere they go simply by scanning their faces. That state already exists." — Editorial, Washington Post

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