Much has been said about China's use of biometric technology for mass civilian surveillance. But facial recognition is being used elsewhere too, and not always as a tool for crime prevention.
Leo Colombo Viña had just hopped onto a Buenos Aires subway when he was approached by a police officer and taken in for questioning over a robbery he'd supposedly committed 17 years prior.
The computer science professor and software company founder had done no such thing. It was a case of mistaken identity, one that was triggered, ironically, by the latest in digital technology: a facial recognition system. But as civil rights activist Eduardo Ferreyra explains in a recent op-ed piece in the Argentine daily Clarín, it didn't stop the Colombo Viña from having to spend six days in jail.
"They surrounded him, told him he had to accompany them to a police station, handcuffed him in front of his family," Ferreyra writes of the incident, which took place in 2019.
For some time now, debates over facial recognition tend to focus on places like China, where the technology is being used for social control, or perhaps India, notorious for its use of facial recognition to identify anti-government protesters.
But as Colombo Viña's case shows, the technology is gaining a foothold far and wide, including in Argentina, where starting two years ago — much to the chagrin of groups like Human Rights Watch — it's even being used to target juvenile suspects.
Biometric technology raises obvious concerns about mass surveillance.
Here is an overview of several of the controversies (and sometimes, pleasant surprises!) surrounding the use of facial recognition tech around the world:
Missing the mark
Biometric technology raises obvious concerns about mass surveillance and the extensive gathering of private information. It's also proven to be racially biased: The programs have more difficulties distinguishing among dark-skinned people, inevitably leading to false arrests.
In the United States, a 2019 case saw an innocent Black man arrested after a false facial recognition match was used as evidence to detain him, CNN reports. The 31-year-old New Jersey resident spent 11 days behind bars before he was finally released, and even then, it took a year for the charges, including unlawful possession of weapons, to be dropped.
A face recognition system at the Narita International airport in Narita, suburban Tokyo — Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO via ZUMA Press
In China, where facial recognition technology has been used for many years now, and especially in provinces that are said to house separatists, the BBC has just revealed that artificial intelligence and facial recognition intended to reveal states of emotion has been tested on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. According to an anonymous software engineer, Uyghurs have been used as test subjects for emotion detection cameras.
Tracking political opponents
Thousands of kilometers away, in the middle of the African continent, the Chinese influence on biometric technology is still prevalent. In 2019, the Chinese company Huawei sold an invasive surveillance system to the Uganda government to track down, arrest and torture political opponents, Quartz Africa reports.
During anti-government protests in November 2020 that led to the death of 50 people, the Uganda police reportedly used Huawei's facial recognition tech to track down and arrest suspects.
Others see facial recognition as Big Brother.
The technology is being put to use in Europe too. In southeastern France, the seaside city of Nice has also become a testing ground for high-tech surveillance tools. Starting a dozen years ago, the then mayor, right-winger Christian Lestrosi, implemented a vast surveillance system that has gotten increasingly high-tech as times goes on. More recently, starting in 2018, Nice began experimenting with facial recognition and has even tested biometric technology in high schools.
Just say cheese
Elsewhere, though, the technology is being used not to fight crime, but to keep people healthy. In East Africa's Tanzania, developers are employing it to fight against rabies, with an application that can determine immediately — with just a cellphone camera image — whether a dog has been vaccinated against the illness.
Facial recognition technology also has the advantage of being hands-free, and can thus be a tool in the fight against COVID-19. In the main airport of the Bahamas, biometric technology allows passengers to travel without having to physically present their (potentially germy) documents, The Bahamas Tribune reports.
Across the planet, in Australia, lawmakers are considering an entirely different use of facial scanning: as a requirement for internet users to access online pornography.
For proponents of such programs, facial recognition tech can help keep us safer. Others see it as Big Brother, and warn that by allowing its increasing use, we're progressively transforming public spaces into spheres of oppression. As Eduardo Ferreyra urges in his Clarín piece: "It is the responsibility of all of us to commit ourselves and work to prevent this from happening."