You've read about it in books and seen it in movies. Imagine the following:
You walk into your kitchen in the morning after waking. The camera in the refrigerator recognizes you and says, "Good morning, Dave" and kicks-off your morning routine. It tunes to your favorite news station, starts the coffee machine and tells you your agenda for the day. When you get to the office, the camera on the door scans your face and opens to admit you as you approach, without changing your stride. You sit down at your desk and your computer automatically unlocks. At lunchtime you go to the local diner and the digital menu presents your "favorite" dishes. You select a meal and payment is processed automatically. At the end of the day when you get home from work your front door camera recognizes you and your door unlocks. You look at your face in the mirror, and it tells you not to forget your night cream. You're leaving for vacation tomorrow, your first trip overseas this year. You check-in online and the camera scans your face and links to the biometrics in your passport. The airport should be a breeze with just carry-on luggage; you'll be able to clear security in minutes, bypassing the manual check lanes. It is going to be a lot sunnier tomorrow when you arrive than it is back home, so you set a reminder to apply sunscreen during your morning routine before heading to bed…
That’s the utopian side of facial recognition. There is no denying the added convenience facial recognition can bring to our daily lives. Several airports already have systems in place to speed up check-in and the boarding process using facial recognition technology. In the United Kingdom passengers travelling from Heathrow will be able to check in and board their flight without showing a passport from this summer, and Gatwick has run a second trial of the system. To give a sense of scale, according to an article published in The Times, more than 80 million passengers pass through Heathrow every year.
Privacy rights groups warn that face recognition programs, whose use, capability and accuracy has increased thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and the proliferation of cameras everywhere, are becoming too powerful and, without appropriate use policies and guidelines, rife for abuse. Another factor to consider are the Big Brother fears of unrestricted surveillance. Also, face recognition isn’t exactly perfect (yet).
Recently in the news, concerns were raised regarding a mobile app called FaceApp, written by a Russian software developer, that uses a selfie - willingly submitted by the user who had accepted the terms and conditions of the app -- (we all read the terms and conditions thoroughly before installing and using a new piece of software, right?) -- to create an "aged' version of themselves via FaceApp's AI. I mean, who isn't excited to see what they'll look like at 90? So, what’s the big deal - sounds like innocent fun, right?
Let's consider another scenario.
You are excited to start your first family trip on your new yacht. Your route takes you from the Carolinas, south to the port of Miami, and then to a final destination in the Caribbean. “Welcome back, Dave” says the AI as you dock at the refueling station in Miami where the biometric system recognizes you and selects the correct fuel for your yacht. Your family heads into the store to pick up a few last-minute items for the trip from the US to the Caribbean; you receive an email receipt for their goods as you walk out of the store. “Have a great day” the AI tells your family.
Everything is going well until you reach your first stop in the Caribbean to refuel. As you make dock, your entry to the refueling station is denied. Maybe they close early on Sunday? You pull into your assigned berth for the night. You make land and head alone to the pier to pick up supplies. As you approach, the doors fail to unlock and permit you access. Strange? You walk around to the manual turnstile and head to the office to see what the issue is with the refueling dock and biometric access. The executive officer, who you have known for decades, informs you that you have been identified as a “person of interest” in a smuggling ring, trafficking contraband from the USA to a foreign country and he must present you to the local law enforcement to help clear your name.
You comply with the request, wanting to clear your good name as quickly as possible, and, well, you know you are innocent. The next thing you know, you are arrested, and your yacht has been impounded. After several days in the local jail, they let you know you were misidentified through the AI at the store in Miami as a cartel leader they have been investigating for the last few years. They apologize and make a lighthearted comment about a 1 in a 100 chance of mistaken identity and release you to your worried family.
Slightly traumatized, the rest of your trip goes well until you make it back home. The first Monday you are back, you go into work to find you cannot access the building and must buzz the front desk. After waiting in the reception area for about an hour, the head of HR comes for you, and you are taken to a meeting room with your boss and the head of legal and asked to explain yourself. Once they verify your story, your access is reinstated, and you get back to work with a great story for the water cooler. All goes well until you leave the office - you are now in the system. Due to your recent arrest, as you enter the local grocery store, the system recognizes you and automatically increases your "risk score”. The security guards watch you like a hawk, and a plain clothes security guard is silently tailing you…
Not so appealing when you consider the downside of facial recognition, is it? I hear you asking yourself: "What does this have to do with FaceApp?" According to reports published by various credible resources -- (use your favorite search engine and enter something like: FaceApp security risks) -- the app’s terms of service grant it a “perpetual” license to our photos. According to the FaceApp CEO, the company deletes “most” photos from its servers after 48 hours. Most. Did they delete yours? My personal interpretation (and I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice) of the app’s terms give FaceApp – and whoever might buy it or work with it in the future – the right to do whatever it wants, through an “irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully paid, transferable sub-licensable license.” The question I ask is - how difficult would be it for bad actors to create a persona and identity using your likeness to cause harm, or discredit you? What if that false persona and image of you made its way "into the system?"
Every technology has its place, and the people that use the systems have a responsibility to society to ensure the systems are not misused, and data captured is handled appropriately. Technology giants have acknowledged this and called for government regulation of face recognition technologies due to their far-reaching impacts.We live in interesting times and I am watching closely as this exciting area of technology -- which crosses personal privacy, cyber security and the private and public sectors -- evolves.