• Jon Jaehnig

Need for Regulation in Facial Recognition


When people talk about facial recognition, there are usually two camps. Some people think that facial recognition is a huge human rights violation that should simply not be allowed. Others think it’s a fun and harmless technology that people get too worked up about.


Which camp you fall in probably has to do with your personal knowledge of and experience with facial recognition. However, most experts believe that the truth is between the two extremes above and that facial recognition is a promising technology that should be watched closely.


Here, we’ll briefly discuss facial recognition. Then, we’ll explore some of its applications and why regulation is so important.


What is Facial Recognition?

“Facial recognition” comes in two kinds. One is more basic and is not a threat to anyone. The other, however, is more advanced and potentially more frightening.


Recognizing Faces

Humans are incredibly good at recognizing and focusing on faces. Basic computers have gotten fairly good at it too. For years, cameras have been able to recognize faces to help users take better photos.

For an understanding of how basic and non-threatening this kind of facial recognition is, cameras don’t even require the internet to be able to do it.

However, to be clear, this isn’t what most people mean when they talk about facial recognition.


Breaking Down Faces

When those old cameras recognize faces, that’s really all that they’re doing. However, an intermediate kind of facial recognition technology is able to break a face down into a series of patterns.

In a vacuum, this technology is also harmless. However, when this information is used with other databases, it can be more powerful and more potentially frightening.


Identifying Faces

Once a computer has broken down a face into those patterns, it can match those patterns with those of other faces in a database. This technology, the most powerful, the rarest, and the most controversial, allows users to apply facial recognition to crowds to find individuals or people of specific ethnic backgrounds.

The worst-case scenario often pointed to by registration advocates are stories from China about the state using facial recognition to locate and detain people from Islamic cultural groups. However, as we’ll see, more common use cases are far more agreeable.

Industry Use Case

Technology is neither malevolent nor benevolent on its own. How the technology is used determines whether it is a thing to be embraced or feared.


Social Media

The science of breaking down faces is encountered every day by thousands of people on social media. Companies including Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use this technology for their augmented reality face filters.


Breaking the face down into patterns is what allows amusing computer “masks” in funny photos. As long as social media companies aren’t compiling databases of users’ faces for nefarious purposes, this technology is nothing to fear. However, social media sites have let us down in the past when it comes to data security.


Virtual Reality

Gesture control in virtual reality used to be achieved through external cameras mounted in the room. Now, it is often achieved through cameras on a headset that can see the user’s hands. However, having cameras inside the headset that can recognize a user’s face may one day be the norm.


At last year’s F8 developers conference, representatives from virtual reality giant Oculus said that this technology may one day be used to create realistic virtual reality avatars that can realistically speak and express emotion in real time.


Security and Law Enforcement

Vuzix, an American extended reality headset manufacturer, uses facial recognition in their “Blade” headset. This headset, marketed to security and law enforcement, can use facial recognition – and even recognize emotions – in crowds viewed by a camera or drone.


This technology is often the kind that is pointed to by legislation hawks as the kind of dystopian technology that should be banned. While it is alarming at first, few would object to this technology being used to identify perpetrators of violent or dangerous crime.


Further, in a March 31 blogpost praising recent facial recognition legislation, Microsoft President Brad Smith pointed out that this technology could be used to locate missing or abducted children and elderly if used in conjunction with amber alert and silver alert systems.


Regulation and Legislation

Until recently, facial regulation was largely undertaken – or not – on a voluntary self-imposed basis by the organizations developing the technology. This is often the case when technology outpaces legislation – which is often the case.


So far, there has been talk about limiting facial recognition at the federal level but that’s about it. Local and state governments have been far more productive. A package passed by Washington state last month is the best and most recent example as well as the only example at the state level or federal level in the U.S.


“...legislation is required to establish safeguards that will allow state and local government agencies to use facial recognition services in a manner that benefits society while prohibiting uses that threaten our democratic freedoms and put our civil liberties at risk,” reads the new law.


The law, which only impacts state and local government use of facial recognition, allows the technology to be used almost exclusively for identifying missing persons and deceased persons.


Moving Forward

Washington state’s law does more than limit governmental use of facial recognition in Washington State. It also provides a precedent that other states can (and probably will) use in drafting their own legislation.


In the meantime, we live in a time of wide and increasing transparency and accountability in the tech sector. It may not be enough to make some of us trust them but until more governments do move in the direction that Washington state is moving in, we have little choice.


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