As Facial Recognition Technology Booms, So Do Privacy Concerns

Download Audio
A man watches as a visitor tries out a facial recognition display at a booth for Chinese tech firm Ping'an Technology at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing on April 26, 2018. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
A man watches as a visitor tries out a facial recognition display at a booth for Chinese tech firm Ping'an Technology at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing on April 26, 2018. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The use of facial recognition technology to identify anyone from a celebrity stalker at a concert to a jaywalker on the streets of China is raising serious questions about privacy.

The technology is being aggressively implemented in China, where it is "shockingly ubiquitous," says Gregory Allen (@Gregory_C_Allen), an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Facial recognition is being used to make payments, securely enter office buildings and by law enforcement, he says.

"There was an instance of an individual who was wanted by the Chinese police who attended, coincidentally enough, a concert in China. There were 50,000 people in attendance at that concert," Allen explains. "With facial recognition technology, Chinese police IDed him as an individual in real time, and they arrested him on sight."

But the idea of unknowingly being identified using this technology is also stoking fears and raising ethical concerns, Allen says.

"There are some folks who will say, 'This harkens to a future in which it is impossible to commit a crime and get away with it,' which is obviously something to look forward to," he says. "But the definition of a crime in China is quite different, right? Expressing the wrong political view can qualify as a crime. And that's something that plenty of Chinese citizens are rightly worried about."

Interview Highlights

On the origins and recent advancements in facial recognition technology 

"Well, facial recognition technology actually was born out of a security-type interest. The Department of Defense spent a lot of money to advance this technology in the early 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. They've been interested in it for a long time, but the technology has not really been ripe until more recently. So the FBI currently has a partnership with 16 states in the United States whereby they can access driver's license photos, and about half of the population in the United States currently lives in states or cities that allow access to facial recognition technology on public records. So what that means is that if the police have a photo from a security camera and that is the suspect of someone believed to have committed a crime, they can then take the face in that photo and run it against their facial recognition database and see if they get a match from driver's license photos, from past mug shot photos. This is an increasingly commonplace technology that more and more police departments and government law enforcement agencies have access to."

"In society, we have really gotten used to the idea of being photographed constantly. What's new in facial recognition technology is that we're losing the anonymity that used to be associated with being recorded."

Gregory Allen

On how the technology is being used in China 

"It's shockingly ubiquitous. So I would say that the facial recognition systems are tied intensively to payments. Most people in China do not carry cash anymore. You will even see, I had the experience of borrowing 10 yuan for the subway from a 70-year-old woman, and she did a phone-based payment. And she authorized it not with Touch ID, not with the passcode, but unlocking it with her face. That's what enabled her to loan me the subway money. That technology of facial recognition tied to payment systems, it's much more commonplace in China. That's also the case in office places, where instead of using a key card or a token to get into your office, there might just be a camera at the door that recognizes your face and opens up the gate for you. So they're extremely aggressive in making use of this technology, and it's showing benefits in the companies and the industries that they're setting up there.

"At the same time that China is pursuing incredibly aggressive implementation of facial recognition technology for commercial purposes, its security services and its domestic police forces are really some of the largest consumers in the world of this technology, and that includes in provinces in western China where there really is a widespread program of detaining individuals of a minority community. ... And this technology is really instrumental in their ability to control that aspect of society, and it's something that China would love to export worldwide."

On the Chinese program that records and shames jaywalkers 

"This is the idea that, you know, shame is a really powerful enforcement, and so the fact that their facial recognition databases are hooked up to public sources of identification, allows the law enforcement police cameras to see that not only someone is jaywalking, but that you are jaywalking. And then, a message will display on a nearby sign, 'Your name. Jaywalkers will be prosecuted under the law.' So it's sort of analogous to a speeding ticket or a red light camera, where it takes a photo of your license plate, it automatically sends you a ticket. But now it's your face, not your license plate."

On some flaws in the technology

"It is not the case that the technology inherently has a problem with darker skin, but it is a case that most of the data sets that this technology is training upon do not include adequate numbers of people with darker skin. And these systems, the quality of the data that you put in, tends to determine the quality of the technology that you get out. So if your database is trained exclusively on say Chinese people, then it's going to perform quite poorly when it's trying to analyze an image of a person with darker skin. There is a cellphone company that is based in China that sells primarily to consumers in Africa, and that company has a facial recognition system that works extremely well when analyzing people of darker skin. So the key is not so much the technology inherently, it's what is the approach that the company adopts in implementing that technology, and do they take that as a real concern and something they need to work on?"

On privacy concerns raised by facial recognition systems 

"If you just walk down the street in Boston, in New York, in London, you are going to be recorded by many many security cameras. Some of them [in] the possession of the local police force, most of them in possession of private companies who just have a security camera. So in society, we have really gotten used to the idea of being photographed constantly. What's new in facial recognition technology is that we're losing the anonymity that used to be associated with being recorded. So it's not just that you walk past a 7-Eleven, and the security camera notes that you're there. There's the possibility that the 7-Eleven will know that you specifically, as an individual, are there, and they know how many times you have passed by in the past few weeks. That's what's really changing in recent years is the ability to analyze this data and correlate it and draw insights from it. It really does raise a whole host of new privacy concerns."

On if we should trust companies developing this technology 

"Google owns a company called Nest, which makes a video-internet-connected doorbell, and that has facial recognition technology. So it'll send you a text and say, 'Hey, this person walked by your door today,' and if you identify that person, it will say, 'Bill walked by your door today.' So companies are already making use of facial recognition and see a lot of potential for it. I do believe that there are areas that really deserve regulatory attention. So thinking back to those police databases ... what are the standards that allow a law enforcement officer to access those databases? Is it a standard of probable cause? Is it a standard of a judge's warrant? Is it a standard of the officer's discretion? These are decisions that have to be made, and at the moment, they're being made on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, and in some areas, there's probably excessive discretion being used as we're implementing these new technologies. So these are the issues we really need to be wrestling with now."

Ashley Bailey produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on December 21, 2018.


Headshot of Peter O'Dowd

Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live