The pros and cons of facial recognition technology

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

Image depicting facial recognition

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 controversy, 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

Facial recognition has many benefits in society, including increasing safety and security, preventing crimes, and reducing human interaction. It can even help support medical efforts, in some cases.

Helps find missing people

Law enforcement agencies use facial recognition to find missing people, and they've also used it to find missing children. 

When combined with aging software that shows how the child would look several years later, facial recognition can even help find someone who’s been missing for years. 

Protects businesses against theft

Business owners use facial recognition software and security cameras to identify known or suspected thieves as they enter their stores. This preemptive security measure can help prevent shoplifting.  

Since people are less likely to commit a crime when they know they are being watched, the technology also serves as a deterrent. 

Strengthens security measures

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

Facial recognition also helps improve safety and security too. 

Facial recognition has been a regular part of Airport security screening for many years, helping identify criminals and potential threats to airlines and passengers. 

Banks and other institutions also use facial recognition to prevent fraud, as the technology can identify people who’ve been previously charged with crimes and alert the bank. If facial recognition tech flags a customer, the bank knows to scrutinize this person’s business at the bank.

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. 

Makes shopping more efficient

The convenience of facial recognition extends beyond security too. 

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

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

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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