Does facial recognition software threaten our freedom?

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CCTV cameras on a light pole. Photo credit: Peakpx (CC0 1.0)

Surveillance cameras are capturing what we do on the streets, at airports, in stores, and in much of our public space. Facial recognition software is touted as making us safer. But mass surveillance has downsides of major proportions.
Kade Crawford of the Massachusetts ACLU is concerned about violation of privacy. She worries that law enforcement agencies will have access to databases that show: “You’ve been in the vicinity of an abortion clinic six times; that you’ve been in the vicinity of a sex shop six times; that you’ve visited a therapist every week at the same time for five years.”

That can lead to the kind of systemic repression imposed on the Muslim Uighurs in Western China, she says.
Many countries in Europe have imposed restrictions on camera surveillance, but the US has not. Now, San Francisco and other cities are banning its use by local police. But others say the genie’s out of the bottle.

Scientist and science-fiction writer David Brin says attempting to “bottle technology is… absolutely, diametrically, 100% wrong.” He insists that when it comes to invasive new technology, human history demonstrates that “elites of government, commerce and criminality will not let themselves be blinded... they will simply use these technologies in secret.”

Beyond the political disagreements, some applications have surprising benefits. David Learned Miller is a computer scientist who writes facial identification software. He says it can identify symptoms of obscure diseases long before doctors can, so “it could potentially help people lead better lives.”

And he tells us that research on facial recognition is a key to understanding intelligence and the workings of the human brain.




Warren Olney


Andrea Brody