Privacy vs security – why facial recognition is a hotbed for debate

Lisa Coutts

20 Aug 2019

The news that live-scanning facial ID technology is being used at King’s Cross, one of the UK’s largest and busiest train stations, was unsettling for those of us who value our privacy.

For years we’ve been asking companies to give us new and exciting technology, and for this technology to fit seamlessly into our lives.

But the use of something like facial recognition, without an understanding of what is being done with the data, rightly raised some eyebrows in the tech community and beyond.

We need to recognise the benefits…

Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that facial recognition technology has the potential to solve some of society’s big (and small) problems.

On a smaller scale, smartphone users are already reaping the benefits, being able to unlock their phones, pay via a digital wallet and download apps with only a glance at their screen.

And avid travellers should be happy that getting through immigration at Heathrow is now far less of a headache, thanks to the introduction of ePassport gates.

There’s even an app that uses facial recognition technology to help reunite lost pets with their owners!

And when you look at the future, the possibilities for leveraging this technology for good seem endless. Facial recognition could be a game changer in everything from retail to healthcare.

Consider, for example, how the tech can help doctors to track a patient’s use of medication more accurately, or detect genetic diseases with a far higher success rate, or even support pain management procedures by monitoring patient’s response to pain levels.

And, more obviously, facial recognition is a vital tool for law enforcement, allowing police to find not only criminals, but also missing children or elderly people.

In fact, the potential of facial recognition to lead to a safer, more secure society is a big tick in the ‘pro’ column for supporters of the technology.

…but also understand the risks

Yet there is a darker side – and it’s one that people are right to call out.

At its current stage, facial recognition has its limits when it comes to accuracy; women, children and people with darker skin are more likely to be misidentified, and this could have serious consequences.

Then there are the arguments around privacy infringements and the monitoring of citizens without their permission (or their knowledge).

The political implications are enormous, and there has been widespread criticism about how the technology could infringe on our civil liberties.

Many experts have even alluded to the fact that we’re at risk of finding ourselves in a Nineteen Eighty-Four dystopian future, where governments can track our every move.

Meanwhile, there is also the danger that our personal biometric information ends up in the wrong hands.

It was only last week that a publicly accessible database was found to be holding millions of peoples’ fingerprints, as well as facial recognition information and usernames and passwords.

Just because we can collect this data, does it mean we should?

If the answer to that question is yes, then more must be done to put every possible protection in place, to ensure citizens’ sensitive biometric data is kept safe and secure.

This goes to show that we need to understand the limitations of the technology, and the risks, if we are to realise its benefits.

After all, the ability of facial recognition to change our lives for the better is less about the tech itself, and more about how it is used, by whom and for what outcome.

Companies must commit to using technology responsibly

When used in the right way, by the right people, facial recognition technology could be enormously valuable. But for this to happen, questions around transparency and data privacy must be answered, and the public must be able to trust that the technology is being used in their interests.

Whether you’re for or against the use of facial recognition, the ability of one case to ignite such fierce debate goes to show just how important it is for organisations to understand that they will be held accountable for how they use the technology, and that they must ensure they are fair and transparent.

Until this happens, we’re likely to see debate continue, and not just here in London but in every city and country that uses facial recognition.


Photo Credit: Matthew Henry, available here