Do you have any devices that turn on when they see your face? It’s convenient and kind of fun, right? And for the most part, it’s groundbreaking security technology. Facial recognition and other forms of biometric technology have the ability to identify people more quickly and more reliably, giving them faster and more secure access to their personal devices while also granting opportunities for law enforcement to positively identify and capture suspects.
The applications for facial recognition are already spreading, with common personal devices like smartphones and laptops having facial recognition built in, and commercial products like smart doorbells utilizing facial recognition for unique features — like allowing homeowners to remotely and automatically let in trusted visitors.
The promise of more convenience and higher security is nice, but before we get too excited about facial recognition being baked into every device on the market, we need to seriously consider the ethical dilemmas.
First, there’s the problem of whether it’s okay for you to collect and store the biometric data of other people. If someone knocks on your door, is it ethical for you to scan their face and store a copy of it for future recognition purposes? You’re legally allowed to take their photo or capture a video of them, so is this any different? (More on this specific question in the next section).
This can be a problematic area of consent, because a person’s biometric data could be used in innumerable nefarious ways, or ways that infringe upon their privacy, such as accessing their devices or tapping into their personal data, from where they went to high school to what their favorite type of ice cream is (assuming you have the right tools). Some states have moved to enact legislation designed to protect consumer biometric policy (like with Texas’s Biometric Privacy Law), and the federal government took action with House Bill 1493. But most of these laws were developed for businesses to follow; it remains ambiguous about individuals.
For the most part, you’re legally allowed to video record other people without their consent, in public or in private, with the exception of areas where privacy is expected (like in dressing rooms or bathrooms). So is collecting or applying biometric data really any more invasive?
On a surface level, no. You’re just using technology to access what is universally regarded as public information (the shape of a person’s face). But on a deeper level, you have to consider that this method of analysis can be used for more purposes, some of which are damaging, than a person could access using their natural abilities and surface-level public information. It’s easy to see why this gets so complicated so quickly.
Law enforcement officers in some areas have access to video surveillance and facial recognition technology that can help them pick out a suspect in a crowd — even if they attempt to disguise themselves. In theory, this is great; it could drastically reduce search times and increase the number of crimes that are solved or brought to justice. However, there are already cases of mistaken identity due to facial recognition. It also opens the door to secret government surveillance of innocent or mostly innocent people. For example, let’s say 1,000 people organize a peaceful protest downtown. If local law enforcement has the ability to scan and store their faces, it could set up a system to track their movements and monitor them for risky behavior — even if they haven’t committed a crime.
It verges on science fiction territory, which is why it’s important to hash out now, before it manifests any further. Should governmental authorities have the power to identify and monitor people even when they haven’t done anything wrong?
It’s also important to acknowledge how businesses can (and probably will) use facial recognition technology. Big companies already go out of their way to gather as much data on their customers as possible, keeping records on individual consumer accounts and tracking details like what size clothing they wear, what their product preferences are, where they live, and what demographic categories they fall into.
Facial recognition simply takes things to the next level. Now, whenever you enter a retail store, the retailer could instantly know who you are, what your fashion style is, what your drink preferences are, and how much you’re likely to spend. The optimistic view is that could help you find what you’re looking for quicker. But it could also leave you with inferior service if you aren’t determined to be a high-priority customer — almost a kind of high-tech discrimination. Plus, it’s hard telling how else those companies could be using your data. Companies like Google and Facebook are already in trouble for this, without the use of facial recognition technology.
That’s not even mentioning the ethical complexities introduced by the possibility of hackers. There are already many ways to fool facial recognition technologies, with photos, prosthetics, and special “noise” layers that function kind of like Instagram filters. The mere possibility that your facial data can be mimicked or reconstructed fairly easily should give us context that makes us reconsider how facial recognition technology is used by us and around us.
These ethical concerns shouldn’t be grounds for discarding the potential of facial recognition technology, but they should incentivize us to practice caution and transparency. Consider limiting the facial recognition software you use on a regular basis, and be aware of when your biometric data is being collected. If you’re collecting biometric data of other people, disclose that information, and pressure corporations and organizations to do the same. As usual, our access to technology has developed before we could create an ethical framework for how to use it. In this gray area, it’s our responsibility to use the technology as ethically as possible.