As U.S. Capitol investigators use facial recognition, it begs the question: Who owns our faces?
by Wendy H. Wong, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto
Facial recognition technology raises serious ethical and privacy questions, even as it helps investigators south of the border zero in on the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol
Who owns your face? Of course, a silly question … right?
But what about the data generated from your face? And what does it mean to have your face become data?
Already, plenty of data about millions and millions of faces exist. We have volunteered our faces in social media posts and photos stored in the cloud. But we’ve yet to determine who owns the data associated with the contours of our faces.
In the age of Big Tech, we need to grapple with what expectations we can and should have about who has access to our faces. The recent riot at the U.S. Capitol has put the question into the spotlight as facial recognition becomes a vital tool in identifying rioters: What is the power of facial recognition technology, and are we ready for it?
Even before the riots, facial recognition technology was being used in many ways that we probably haven’t seriously considered, and many of us have voluntarily contributed to creating data about our faces, either explicitly or implicitly. Facial recognition technology, for example, is ubiquitous in public spaces.
As we make decisions on whether to use facial recognition technology for law enforcement, surveillance and other initiatives with ostensible social purposes, we need to stop and ask ourselves: What are the costs of losing our faces to data? There are serious consequences, including the right to privacy and our ability to live our lives free of surveillance.
In Belgrade, according to reports and a video by local non-governmental organization the SHARE Foundation made in support of their initiative #hiljadekamera (Thousands of Cameras), high-definition cameras will be deployed in the Serbian city for a variety of surveillance functions.
The director of SHARE, Danilo Krivokapić, says facial recognition technology in those cameras will track individuals’ movements as they wander around the city. Photos that already exist in the system are matched up with the data captured by the cameras, and are then analyzed through a supplied artificial intelligence system. This creates the possibility for tracking a person’s movements, via facial recognition technology, in real time as they move through Belgrade.
But this isn’t just happening in Belgrade. Governments and surveillance go hand in hand, and facial recognition technology gives governments more options and ways to track and constrain the movement of people within their borders.
The city of London decided last year to deploy cameras capable of facial recognition alongside its 627,727 CCTV cameras. The move lead to protests.
Corporations also employ FRT
It’s not just governments that want your face.
Last year, Cadillac Fairview, one of the biggest commercial real estate companies in North America, was called out by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for installing inconspicuous cameras in directories at 12 of their malls throughout Canada, including Toronto’s iconic Eaton Centre.
These cameras captured five million images of customers and used facial recognition software that generated more data about those images, including gender and age. Although the images were deleted, the data generated from the images was kept on a server by a third party.
In response to the privacy commissioner’s report, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus stated:
“We have a right to be able to go in public places without being photographed, tracked, put into data surveillance machines, whether it’s for corporations or for police and government.”
Unfortunately, Angus is wrong — there is no such right. And since Cadillac Fairview didn’t keep the photos, just the data about the faces in the photos, the problem was about consent, not violating privacy rights.
What rights do we have when we volunteer our faces to datafication? Journalist Rebecca Heilweil documents the many ways we bring facial recognition technology into our lives. Many of us are familiar with Facebook’s photo-tagging technology that tags not just your face, but other people in your photos. This technology is also present in Google and Apple’s photo apps.
But this kind of facial recognition technology is being extended into other realms. For example, Subaru deploys facial recognition technology to detect distracted driving. Apple offers HomeKit features that cross-reference data collected from various devices, and uses facial recognition to tell you if a friend recognized from your photos is at the door.
Nest Hub Max from Google employs facial recognition technology to literally look for you, in the way that it’s always listening for the words: “OK, Google.” Hirevue uses AI to evaluate potential employee images for suitability and likelihood for success.
Fundamental part of who we are
The human face is one of the most basic things that very young children recognize and learn as their brains sort out the world.
It is a fundamental part of who we are as a species, and its importance is almost too vital to even articulate. Is the data associated with that face — that is, the digital representation of your face that matches up to your actual face or photos of your face — part of that fundamental part of you that you get to keep to yourself? Or is that a foolish expectation in our data-intensive world?
Which brings us back to the U.S. Capitol insurrection. There is a certainly a sense of justice to see facial recognition technology deployed to bring white supremacists to justice. But at what cost?
We know about the biases in our existing data against people of colour, women and of low-income status. We know police who use these biased data in the name of algorithmic policing has resulted in harassment of targeted communities and the wrongful arrests of Black people.
The stakes are high, not just for law enforcement, but for our rights to privacy as individuals. Our expectations of data collection and privacy are not in line with the realities of data collection and storage, facial or otherwise. So it’s important to consider our rights in the context of our humanity.
Our personal data has been and is being collected at an astounding rate every day. That’s resulting in a fundamental change not just in economic and ethical terms, but in the way we live as human beings. Our understanding of human rights, and the corresponding laws to protect them, need to be rebooted to account for how data collection is fundamentally changing.