America's Views On Face Recognition and Surveillance Cameras
By Tim Bajarin
If you have been to China in the last few years, you know that surveillance cameras are everywhere. On street corners, in train stations, parking lots, and every place people congregate in one form or another, including restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc. I was pretty sure that there was some type of camera in my hotel room the last time I was Beijing too, but could never actually find it.
China’s surveillance society is heavy-handed and driven by the government and the people have little say as to how the Chinese officials use cameras and face recognition to achieve a plethora of goals. A recent Fortune article explained how AI-based face recognition was used to shame jaywalkers on the streets of Shenzhen and explained one of these goals in that story:
“For China’s government, that means not only being able to identify any of its 1.4 billion citizens within a matter of seconds but also having the ability to record an individual’s behavior to predict who might become a threat—a real-world version of the “precrime” in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.”
A New York Times article from April 14, 2019, shows another example of how China is using AI and face recognition to profile and track members of a large Muslim minority:
“The facial recognition technology, which is integrated into China’s rapidly expanding networks of surveillance cameras, looks exclusively for Uighurs based on their appearance and keeps records of their comings and goings for search and review. The practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.
The technology and its use to keep tabs on China’s 11 million Uighurs were described by five people with direct knowledge of the systems, who requested anonymity because they feared retribution. The New York Times also reviewed databases used by the police, government procurement documents and advertising materials distributed by the A.I. companies that make the systems.”
At the moment in the US, surveillance cameras are in many public places like stores, college campuses and even on street corners. However, most are used without face recognition behind them and for things like identifying shoplifting, monitoring school campuses and at intersections to catch cars breaking the speed limit.
In a recent study by datainnovation.org, they surveyed American citizens about their views on face recognition, and the results are mixed, as seen in the three charts below.
U.S. Internet users’ opinions on facial recognition technology.
“There were some differences in these opinions based on age, with older Americans more likely to oppose government limits on the technology. For example, 52 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds opposed limitations that come at the expense of public safety, compared to 61 percent of respondents ages 55 and older. In addition, women were less likely to support limits than men. For example, only 14 percent of women support strictly limiting facial recognition if it comes at the expense of public safety, versus 23 percent of men.”
U.S. Internet users’ opinions on facial recognition technology, by age and gender.
U.S. Internet users’ opinions on regulating surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology.
You can view the full datainnovation.org report here.
Reading these charts makes it clear that people consider their safety first, and privacy second in most cases.
San Francisco, one of the most liberal cities in the US, voted recently to ban face recognition in city surveillance cameras, which could set a precedent for many other cities in the US to follow suit.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, DC, as reported by ABC.net.au, issued a statement chiding San Francisco for considering the facial recognition ban. It said advanced technology makes it cheaper and faster for police to find suspects and identify missing people.
According to Daniel Castro, the foundation’s vice-president, critics were silly to compare surveillance usage in the United States with China, given that one country has strong constitutional protections and the other does not.
“In reality, San Francisco is more at risk of becoming Cuba than China — a ban on facial recognition will make it frozen in time with outdated technology,” he said.
Mr. Castro’s views are valid, but the concern continues to be that facial recognition could be used in ways that are legal but also used for nefarious reasons, too. As of now, the types of safeguards are not in place to guarantee face recognition not only stays in the right hands but, is not abused even when it is legal.
These survey results take the current temperature of the American public and are bound to change if face recognition gets abused. Facial recognition will remain controversial for a long time but if used properly it can be an important tool for public safety. However, if abused, it could have dire consequences for our freedom and the well-being of America and the world.
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