Facial Recognition and Privacy

facial recognition privacy

Facial recognition technology is a powerful tool that needs regulation and control

The power of facial recognition technology is proving divisive. On the one hand, systems are already being used to improve security, identify missing people and deliver smart personalised services. But on the other, there’s genuine concern that the technology could lead to a ‘Big Brother’ surveillance society, stripping away even more of our beleaguered privacy.

Such is the concern about privacy, that while many shops already use facial recognition technology to track and/or profile shoppers in-store, most haven’t publicised the fact. Back in 2015, the BBC reported that one in four UK stores had used some form of facial recognition. The technology has only improved since, evolving to embrace object and emotion detection.

Regulation and Ability

China arguably leads the way in the development (and deployment) of facial recognition systems. But even here, there are two sides to the story. The technology has certainly racked up some key security successes (the arrest of a drug smuggler at a busy train station and the identification of a murder suspect in a crowded Wuhu street). But it has also been used to shame jaywalkers and track the movement of certain minority groups.

It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that there’s a general worry about the state of surveillance and facial recognition. People often fear what they don’t fully understand. Crucially, it’s important to realise that there are limiting factors to the extent of how facial recognition can be used.

Facial recognition - a bank of monitor screens watching crowds
Surveillance can be used for the collective good, improving building security or even acting as a boarding pass in an airport.

First, is regulation. Many countries are already looking more closely into facial recognition and specifically at what can be deemed ‘acceptable’ use. In a democracy, the truth is that the wider population won’t accept a heavy-handed approach to surveillance. Law enforcement agencies, for example, will likely be restricted to looking for known offenders and those on watch lists, monitoring public feeds automatically.

Automatic monitoring in this way might actually improve privacy, as CCTV feeds will only send an alert when required – a human operator will not have to watch everything going on, as often happens now.

The second limiting factor is one of ability. Even if a government could create a fully interconnected CCTV system monitoring every person to see what they’re getting up to, why would they? As well as being prohibitively expensive to implement, all this data would need to be stored and processed, which would add to the overall expense. Far from large-scale monitoring of everyone, facial recognition works best for smaller-scale jobs, such as spotting a criminal in a crowd or improving building security.

Control is in Our Hands

For many uses of facial recognition, the control of data is in the hands of the consumer. This is particularly true under new and tougher privacy laws, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In most cases where facial recognition is used, such as for registering as a VIP customer, acting as a door pass, or to make secure payments, permissions are well within an individual’s control. If a customer doesn’t want to sign up for a service, or wants to remove their profiles from a system, they are often within their rights to do so.

Facial recognition - A group of people identified by a facial recognition system
Facial recognition systems ultimately collect data and new privacy laws give people greater control over what can be done with it.

Ultimately, facial recognition is being used to boost security and to improve customer service, two things that should attract individuals to using it. Provided people know and understand how their facial recognition profile is used, and the restrictions placed on it, they should embrace the new technology.

Data not Photos

Video creates a huge amount of data, most of it not particularly useful. Companies simply don’t want to have to transport and store this video, trying to pull meaning out of it in the cloud. Instead, facial recognition is largely processed at source via edge computing systems. The result is that it is data that’s transmitted, not personal images.

Where the information isn’t useful, it can just be discarded. Take a shop that has a facial recognition system, for example. As you walk in, the system will scan and then compare the data that your face generates to check against a known list of VIPs or known shoplifters. Once the check is done, your private data can be deleted, and the company may only retain useful demographics information to aid future sales. In many ways, this kind of system is less intrusive.

Of course, facial recognition technology has the power to be misused, but with lawful and responsible use, the technology is incredibly powerful. Local edge processing and storage can reduce the transmission of private data, while improved security and customer service can benefit customers. With the right information and understanding of how their data will be used, customers can be shown how facial recognition can benefit them and that it’s nothing to fear.

Find out how the VIA Smart Access Control System tackles privacy and accessibility here.

VIA Technologies, Inc.