The pros and cons of facial recognition technology

Is it really worth risking user privacy in the name of efficiency and security?

Once seen as the symbol of advancement in future civilisations, especially in sci-fi staples such as Star Trek or 2001: Space Odyssey, facial recognition has quickly become a mainstream component of our day-to-day life. From unlocking our mobile devices to tagging our friends in Facebook posts, this type of biometric technology makes authentication quick, simple, and (most of the time) accurate.

However, facial recognition has also been the subject of plenty of controversies, especially in the aftermath of the shooting of George Floyd, which drew attention to the racially motivated police brutality in the US. Due to many police forces relying on facial recognition technology to identify potential suspects, tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM had chosen to reconsider their stances on its development and sales. Weeks later, the use of facial recognition for law enforcement purposes was also deemed unlawful in the UK, with the Court of Appeal declaring that the technology violates human rights, data protection laws, and equality laws.

The topic is also expected to be debated in the European Parliament, with policymakers being asked to ban the use of facial recognition as a biometric mass surveillance tool. A petition launched by a coalition of privacy advocates which warns of numerous potential outcomes of not regulating the technology has so far been signed by 42,489 people.

Nevertheless, facial recognition is still being used in a number of other scenarios, including the workplace, where at times it’s trusted with making decisions such as hiring – or firing – employees. 

Wherever it’s being used, facial recognition is likely to attract a lot of attention. That is why we’ve collated a list of pros and cons related to facial recognition so that you can stay informed on this controversial topic. 

Pros of facial recognition

There are many benefits facial recognition can offer society, from preventing crimes and increasing safety and security to reducing unnecessary human interaction and labor. In some instances, it can even help support medical efforts. 

Helps find missing people and identify perpetrators

Law enforcement agencies use facial recognition to identify criminals with no other means of identification and find missing people by comparing faces on live camera feeds with those on a watch list. 

They’ve also used it to find missing children, combining facial recognition with ageing software to predict how children would look several years on and find them even when they’ve been missing for years. Police receive live alerts and are able to investigate potential matches in real-time. 

Man in business suit being matched through facial recognition

Protects businesses against theft

Facial recognition software can be an effective preemptive measure against shoplifting. Business owners use the software and security cameras to identify known or suspected thieves, and the presence of the cameras themselves work to deter theft in the first place. 

If a business does end up getting stolen from, the software can also help identify and track the thieves. 

Strengthens security measures in banks and airports

Facial recognition also helps improve safety and security in non-retail spaces, like airports and banks. 

It’s been a regular part of airport security screening for years. Similar to identifying criminals that come into shops, the software has helped identify criminals and potential threats to airlines and passengers.

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has promised to use facial recognition on 97% of international passengers by 2023. 

An additional benefit is that it runs border checks much more quickly and accurately than people can.

Institutions like banks use the software in the same way to prevent fraud, identifying those previously charged with crimes and alerting the bank so they know to pay extra attention to the person’s business at the bank. 

Air travellers pass through automated passport border control gates at Heathrow Airport, where the UK Border Force uses facial recognition technology.

Makes shopping more efficient

While identifying and finding missing persons and criminals are arguably the most important benefits of facial recognition, they extend beyond security to convenience. 

Instead of making cash or credit purchases at stores, facial recognition technology can recognize your face and charge the goods to your account. 

Use of this increased during the pandemic to serve both convenience and security purposes, as well as help manage the smaller ratio of staff to customers, but retailers also see the tech being used in the future to recognise and advertise to loyalty club members and clock employees in and out. 

Reduces the number of touchpoints

Facial recognition requires fewer human resources than other types of security measures, such as fingerprinting. It also doesn’t require physical contact or direct human interaction. Instead, it uses AI to make it an automatic and seamless process. 

It also limits touchpoints when unlocking doors and smartphones, getting cash from the ATM or performing any other task that generally requires a PIN, password or key. 

Improves photo organization

Facial recognition can also tag photos in your cloud storage through Apple or Google. This makes it easier to organize, find and share your photos. It also plays a role in suggesting tags on Facebook. 

Improves medical treatment

One surprising use of facial recognition technology is the detection of genetic disorders

By examining subtle facial traits, facial recognition software can, in some cases, determine how specific genetic mutations caused a particular syndrome. The technology may be faster and less expensive than traditional genetic testing.

Cons of facial recognition

As with any technology, there are potential drawbacks to using facial recognition, such as threats to privacy, violations of rights and personal freedoms, potential data theft and other crimes. There’s also the risk of errors due to flaws in the technology.

Threatens individual and societal privacy

The threat to individual privacy is a significant downside of facial recognition technology. People don’t like having their faces recorded and stored in a database for unknown future use. 

Privacy is such a big issue that some cities, including San Francisco, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have banned law enforcement’s use of real-time facial recognition surveillance. In these cases, police can use video recordings from personally owned security video devices, but they can’t use live facial recognition software. 

Imposes on personal freedom

Being recorded and scanned by facial recognition technology can make people feel like they’re always being watched and judged for their behavior. Plus, police can use facial recognition to run everyone in their database through a virtual criminal lineup, which is like treating you as a criminal suspect without probable cause.

Violates personal rights

Graphic of a gigantic and sinister CCTV camera observing anonymous people in a crowd

Countries with limited personal freedoms, such as China, UAE, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, commonly use facial recognition to spy on citizens and arrest those deemed troublemakers.

Creates data vulnerabilities

There is also concern about the storage of facial recognition data, as these databases have the potential to be breached. 

Hackers have broken into databases containing facial scans collected and used by banks, police departments and defense firms in the past.

Provides opportunities for fraud and other crimes

Lawbreakers can use facial recognition technology to perpetrate crimes against innocent victims too. They can collect individuals’ personal information, including imagery and video collected from facial scans and stored in databases, to commit identity fraud. 

With this information, a thief could take out credit cards and other debt or open bank accounts in the victim’s name, or even build a criminal record using the victim’s identity.

Beyond fraud, bad actors can harass or stalk victims using facial recognition technology. 

For example, stalkers could perform reverse image searches on a picture taken in a public place to gather information about their victims and determine who they are and where they live. 

Plus, because technological crime moves faster than the law, people can be victimized before the activity is viewed as a crime. 

Technology is imperfect

Facial recognition isn’t perfect. For example, it’s less effective at identifying women and people of color than White males. 

The technology depends upon algorithms to make facial matches. Those algorithms are more robust for White men than other groups because the databases contain more data on White men than women and people of color. This creates unintentional biases in the algorithms. 

Innocent people could be charged

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There are inherent dangers in false positives. Facial recognition software could improperly identify someone as a criminal, resulting in an arrest. 

This issue is exasperated when you add that the technology struggles with people of color, which increases the potential for racial profiling accusations. 

Technology can be fooled

Other factors can affect the technology’s ability to recognize people’s faces, including camera angles, lighting levels and image or video quality. People wearing disguises or slightly changing their appearance can throw off facial recognition technology too. 

Technology continues to evolve

As facial recognition technology improves, its challenges will decrease. Other technology could impact its effectiveness, including recognizing body parts or how a person walks. 

For the time being, though, the technology’s inadequacies and people’s reliance on it means facial recognition has room to grow and improve.

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