Face recognition – pandemic upgrades

“This is not just some Orwellian technology of the future — it’s being used by law enforcement agencies across the country right now, and doing harm to communities right now.”

Evan Greer – Fight for Future deputy director

I wrote before how face recognition is still struggling with bias and little regulatory oversight. The civil unrest in US and the pandemic brought the face recognition to the fore. Big companies, namely Amazon, IBM and Microsoft, announced they withdraw from supplying police the FR technology. In case of Microsoft – until federal legislation is passed, Amazon implemented one-year moratorium but haven’t mentioned police partnerships with Ring (police asks Ring users to voluntarily submit the footage).
My bet is, the companies are afraid about legal consequences as Facebook in January 2020 agreed to pay $550 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over its use of facial recognition technology. The other reasons for a “pause” are possible public backlash and efforts to pass a weak regulation in pandemic times (lobby spending in US in 2019 – Amazon $16 million, Facebook $17 million and is likely to be higher in 2020).
Meanwhile, it’s Chinese companies like Huawei, Hikvision are the major players on the market. AIGS Index data finds that 63 countries are deploying AI surveillance from China. Full version of the index can be found here.
This technology is spreading at rapid pace not only in authoritarian countries. The index shows that 51 percent of advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems. Those systems deployed at mass scale infringe upon right to freedom of association and expression and are illegal. As of now, it’s hard to see a legal framework, especially one which is publicly accessible, precise and non-discriminatory in any country, democratic or not. I recommend to look at the chilling report, as it is comprehensive and first of its kind.

Neutral technology

Jathan Sadowski wrote:
“Not all innovation deserves to exist; much of the technologies that fuel surveillance and policing should never have been created in the first place. If the only tactics we accept are modifying and regulating these technologies, then we undermine our own agency and foreclose alternatives.”
Joy Buolamwini, a co-founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, said in testimony before Congress, “These tools are too powerful, and the potential for grave shortcomings, including extreme demographic and phenotypic bias, is clear. We cannot afford to allow government agencies to adopt these tools and begin making decisions based on their outputs today and figure out later how to rein in misuses and abuses.”

I would agree with the above; this is not the case of Collingridge dilemma, and maybe it’s not too late to stop it in its tracks. Face recognition is clearly a dystopian technology, with far reaching consequences for society. Those systems are already in use for around 10 years, now supercharged by machine learning. The notion of technology’s neutrality doesn’t apply here. The broad reach of AI into “real world” with all it’s nuisances, which then will be classifying, analysing and automating outcome – do we really want it? Mass surveillance program like this allows governments (or anyone rich and powerful really), to identify whoever they want, without knowledge or consent, and without providing a reason for doing so. Chinese government is using those systems to detect minorities. There is a research into detecting criminals just from their faces. The function creep will go from public safety to control of the population on a scale never seen before.

New use cases

Development of new FR technology is happening, as you can guess, thanks to the pandemic. Companies responded to the problem of people faces obscured by masks with new technology called periocular recognition. Basically it’s recognizing people through the area around their eyes. One of them, Rank One, will ship the technology to all of its active customers for free.
Others, like Arteco has integrated facial recognition, body temperature scanning and mask detection technology. Sensory’s TrulySecure tech boasts biometric fusion of face and voice. There are plenty of companies eager to combine different surveillance methods and deploy them at work places, churches, stadiums etc. Naturally to contribute to COVID-19 relief efforts. Briefcam (bought by Canon in 2018), is Israel-based company has a tool that can filter out “men, women, children, clothing, bags, vehicles, animals, size, color, speed, path, direction, dwell time, and more.” Recently it launched a new “Proximity Identification” where the system can measure the distance between individuals, detect who is wearing a mask and identify crowds and bottlenecks.
The company is not a registered by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), which evaluates facial recognition vendors that are operating worldwide. Have a look at their demo:

Other possibilities appear as algorithms are getting better. New research posted in Nature titled “Facial recognition technology can expose political orientation from naturalistic facial images” claims 72% accuracy vs 55% human accuracy.

EU mixed approach

EU plans an extension of 2008 Prum system (for merging facial recognition databases for use by all states) was met with concerns from European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee. Banning the use of FR in public spaces was considered in January 2020, then shortly after the idea was dropped. On September the 3rd, Kilian Gross of the Commission’s DG Connect said that all options were still on the table. Gross said that 28% of respondents support a ban on biometric remote identification being used in publicly accessible places. European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) expressed opinion that software that captures “gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, keystrokes and other biometric or behavioural signals.” should be banned for a limited period of time.
I just want to add this: while there is probably data exchange between FBI and Europol, neither responded to questions about data-sharing agreements between the EU and the U.S.
While The European Union has agreed to stricter rules on the sale of technologies like facial recognition and spyware, a report by Privacy International shows that EU agencies have been training authorities across the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa in “controversial phone and internet surveillance techniques”. Niger was allocated €11.5 million from EU Trust Fund for Africa, to buy surveillance drones, cameras and software. This looks like outsourcing migration control systems.

Tom and Jerry

Protesters and artist already started using FR technology to identify police officers, which usually ends with some kind of repercussions as reported by NYT. It seems that watchers aren’t like to be watched.

People fighting for fair elections in Belarus started to use software to unmask the police:

How to avoid FR – Occlusion and confusion

Hiding your entire face may be more effective for preventing FR systems from identifying you, but it’s the exact opposite of inconspicuous, well maybe not now in pandemic times, but in general.
Otherwise there is plenty of choices. Clothing which can block electromagnetic signals or disguise as licence plates, glasses. There are hats that have embedded tiny infrared LEDs and even face painting.

In online world, there are methods of subtly altering the photos, to subvert a neural network called poison attack or adversarial attack.
Tools can be found here or here (it only works on uploaded images though). The downfall here is the number of photos of “you” are already in the databases – but when the number of “cloaked” photos outnumbers the real ones, it may just work.

You can go all the way with 3D-printed model of someone else’s face. The URME Personal Surveillance Identity Prosthetic is a 3D scan of the artist Leo Selvaggio’s face, right down to his hair and skin texture. Or you can use someone else’s:

David Cameron mask to fight face recognition

You can support ban on face recognition systems in Europe through the new European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) #ReclaimYourFace


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