Facial Recognition Surveillance Treats Everyone Like Suspects

Privacy is a fundamental right that belongs to each and every one of us. Governments aren’t allowed to violate it whenever it pleases them. If the authorities want to spy on someone, they should need to get permission to do so.

We all want the freedom to go about our daily lives without being spied on. But facial recognition surveillance takes that freedom away from us. It treats everyone like a suspect and destroys the notion that people should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

We are being forced to give up some of our freedom, and in return the government is promising that we will be safer. Or so we’re told.

The software is shoddy

In fact, the efficacy of facial recognition surveillance is highly suspect. There are no concrete examples of when it was used to directly foil a terrorist attack, but it has had plenty of success diverting law enforcement resources towards chasing down false leads.

Indeed, despite the fact that facial recognition surveillance is been gradually expanding across Europe, the results have not been encouraging.

It was used during the 2017 Champions League final in Wales, where it produced 2,297 false positives. UK police in South Wales trialed facial recognition surveillance between May 2017 and March 2018. The system flagged 2,685 people as criminal suspects, but 2,451 were false positives.

Despite these results, authorities continue to extol the accuracy of facial recognition software. In Germany, where the government plans to install the technology at 14 airports and 134 train stations, authorities insist the software is 80% accurate.

But an activist hacker association says the government is misleading the public. If all three providers of facial recognition system worked together, it could be possible to achieve such a result. But the accuracy of each individual system does not exceed 68.5%.

Even if the software did get it right eight in ten times, that would be completely unacceptable. Assume that the software was even better – 99.99% accurate. That’s one false positive in 10,000 face scans.

In scanning 10 million airline passengers, 99.99% accuracy translates into 1,000 failures. And remember, this technology will be most in the busiest places – airports, train stations, shopping malls, areas with high pedestrian traffic.

What will the EU do?

The EU is in the process of deciding how to regulate facial recognition technology, but, at present, they will allow member states to continue to employ the software under existing rules.

In January, a draft EU white paper leaked, revealing that the European Commission is considering a five-year ban on the use of facial recognition technologies in public areas.

The ban is intended to give regulators time to figure out how to prevent governments and companies from abusing facial recognition software. But even during the proposed ban, exceptions can be carved out for security-related issues, as well as for research and development.

Given the exceptions, it is difficult to believe that the use of facial recognition surveillance will be stopped in places like airports and other busy transport terminals. Governments will likely make the case that such use is necessary for security.

Still, there is hope for more forceful guidance from the EU in the future. Commission Vice-President for Digital Margrethe Vestager has said that she believes facial recognition surveillance violates the GDPR, the EU’s data protection regulation.

If the European Court of Justice agrees, this could restrict the use of facial recognition cameras at member state level. But such a far-reaching judgment seems unlikely.

Privacy belongs to all of us

Privacy is a fundamental right that belongs to each and every one of us. Governments aren’t allowed to violate it whenever it pleases them. If the authorities want to spy on someone, they should need to produce evidence that supports their suspicion, and only then be given permission to violate the privacy of their suspect.

Sometimes, it is the most passive, unnoticed violations of our rights that can be the most damaging. Facial recognition surveillance turns our free societies into police states. It allows the government to record you and store your data without your knowledge or consent. This is illegal, unjust and has no place in a democracy.

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