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Looking for common ground on facial recognition vs the right to privacy

Alison Holt, Guest Post. 15 July 2019, 7:34 am
Looking for common ground on facial recognition vs the right to privacy

Back in May this year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of facial recognition software by city agencies. 

At the same time, across the globe, cities with a long-term history of violence had started embracing the readily available ID technologies. Finally, these city agencies were able to find answers that had been eluding them for decades, answers to questions such as, "How can we be sure that the person the Police arrested is the same person that appeared in Court?"

What are the San Francisco legislators thinking? Perhaps it hasn't occurred to the good people of San Fran that crims might actively want to avoid being identified, and probably carry several forms of non-matching "official" ID documents that can be pulled out depending who is asking to see them.

Fingerprints are good and reliable, but it is difficult to recognise somebody walking past you by their fingerprints. The tech is in place to recognise passers by from their iris scans, but fingerprints are still illusive.

Facial recognition software won't be 100% reliable and there needs to be good governance in place to ensure that cases of mistaken identity are treated graciously and with decorum.  And I suspect that the governance piece was missing in San Francisco. You see it's rarely the case that technology is very good or very bad.  Technology is neutral (in the main) - it's what we do with it that determines how we and others feel about it. 

Do you remember when we all loved social media because it provided a wonderfully easy and straight forward mechanism for re-connecting with old school friends, university pals and those people that influenced our lives but didn't stay in them long enough for us to collect their contact details. Now there is a rising swell of distaste towards social media and we don't want to be associated with platforms that promote election obfuscation or the Xist behaviours (terrorists, racists etc.)  

So back to facial recognition - here's an opportunity to use tech for good and keep our streets safe and secure. But for this to be an acceptable solution, it is essential to have good governance and policy in place so that all stakeholders, users, managers, agency leads, directors etc. understand the sensible operating conditions for the technology. It isn't going to be infallible, but rather than throw it out, why not demand a second ID point to increase the reliability, or determine that decisions based on facial recognition can only be tentative?

If we've learnt anything from the vaccination - anti-vaccination debate, it's this:

  • We forget how bad things were (for example people dying or being physically and mentally impaired by measles, whooping cough etc.)
  • We take note of unsubstantiated comment as if it was Gospel truth
  • We let the "bad" continue until we reach a tipping point and by then society is ready for drastic measures (such as banning non-vaccinated children from school or University)

And before we go back to the days of Jack the Ripper when Police did not have the tools they needed to do their job, let's take a moment to reflect and work out what would need to be in place for us to trust the street tech and its use. Let's invite the Police (and other City Agencies) and Public to co-develop an acceptable governance framework and operating model.  

Surely, we can work together to balance the sum of the rights of individuals for privacy with the rights of the herd for safety and protection?

Alison Holt is a board member of ITP as well as e-judiciary advisor to the Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea, principal consultant at Statistics New Zealand and the New Zealand head of delegation at SC7 Software and Systems Engineering.


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