Should Facial Recognition Software Be Banned?
Does facial recognition technology present a unique and unprecedented threat to our privacy? According to Evan Selinger, RIT philosophy professor and expert on the ethical and privacy implications of technology, the answer is “yes.” At least, that’s what he told us earlier this month when he spoke to a group of lawyers here in Rochester.
This presentation was sponsored by the Monroe County Bar Association’s Technology and Law Practice Committee and was held at the upstairs meeting room at 80W restaurant. I’m the chair of this committee and this TechTalk, was part of an upcoming series of talks that are the brainchild of committee member Aleksander Nikolic, a Rochester IP attorney with Heslin, Rothenberg, Farley & Mesiti, P.C.
During this talk,"Who Stole My Face? The Privacy Implications of Facial Recognition Technology,” Selinger shared the reasons for his belief that facial recognition software should be banned. His basic premise was that that facial recognition technology should be banned across the board until regulations are enacted that will control when and how it is used, and by whom.
Selinger explained that facial recognition technology is unique in its invasiveness and in its potential for causing harm. In large part this is because our faces are central to our identities, and due to social norms and unlike other biometric data such as our fingerprints or DNA, are typically fully viewable when we’re in public. Similarly, because images of our faces are easily captured, both online and off, that data is more vulnerable to use and abuse by law enforcement agencies and private entities.
According to Selinger, the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement is particularly problematic due to its invasiveness and increasing pervasiveness. This is in part due to the risks presented when law enforcement officers seek to use facial recognition tools as part of their investigatory, screening, and crime prevention arsenals. One example offered by Selinger is that in some cases law enforcement agencies have obtained images from driver’s licenses issued by the DMV and used them for investigatory purposes including in lineups.
The use of facial recognition technology in this manner is of particular concern since the underlying programming used to create facial recognition software often leads to biased results that can have life-altering effects for those being screened by it. For example, in a study conducted by the ACLU last year, it was determined that the programming behind Amazon's facial surveillance technology, Rekognition, was inherently biased.
In the study, Amazon’s facial recognition software was used to compare photos of members of Congress to mugshots of people who had been arrested for a crime. Rekognition incorrectly identified 28 matches between members of Congress and the mugshots. Notably it was members of Congress who were people of color that were disproportionately affected by these errors. That same software also has been shown to have difficulty identifying women’s faces and has incorrectly determined that women were men.
Selinger asserted that legislation recently passed in San Francisco, Somerville, Berkeley, and Oakland that bans the use of facial recognition tools by law enforcement is a step in the right direction. I agree with him, but realistically, I tend to believe that the use of facial recognition technology is already pervasive enough that it's going to be difficult to unring that bell. After all, the legislative process tends to move at a snail's pace, while technology is advancing at rates never before seen.
That being said, only time will tell. All in all, Selinger’s presentation was a fascinating one and was well received by everyone in attendance. If it sounds interesting to you, then you’re in luck! As mentioned above, this was the first in a series of TechTalks that the Committee will be hosting, and each presentation will focus on the intersection of technology and the law. Future talks will be open to the business community as well as attorneys, so make sure to visit the Monroe County Bar Association’s website (www.mcba.org) for details about upcoming TechTalks. We hope to see you next time!
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.