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Commentary –Biometrics–I’ve Got Your Number

For as long as I can remember I had an uncanny ability to remember faces but was incapable of recalling names, even those of my relatives. I employed an alphabet method going from A to Z in the hope that when a particular letter came up, it would trigger the person’s name. My next line of attack was the woman who became my wife, who would invariably supply the missing name. The biggest problem was when “this person”– walking down the street, right at me with a big smile and arms outstretched—who were they. Now if I had an app on my I Phone that could read that persons face and give me a name — what a relief.

But Bernie Sanders would say— you’re entitled to a free state run college education but you’re not entitled to know my name. And he’d be right with a” But”. Privacy insures are not an all- in or an all-out conundrum. By making all facial recognition ability too great a privacy violation, we lose a marvelous potential tool for law enforcement. And as I write that you in turn will sing the words to the slippery slope song. I am sure it was sung to Columbus, as he headed out into the unknown and the edge of the world: “Chris—can you really depend on those maps– they may be flawed?” Let us not forget there are multiple methods of recognition systems that are in play currently. They are already a fabric of our daily lives.

I venture to guess that most people in the United States have heard something of facial recognition ability, but they are unsure if “it’s good or bad”. The usual complaints are it is an unreliable tool, biased and a threat to our basic civil rights and safety. Put simply it is alleged that it invades our privacy which contains a whole bundle of different protect rights.

The conversation starts not with facial recognition but with Biometrics. Biometrics data collecting is a means or method of collecting and verifying an individual’s personal identity. Said another way, it is a measurement and an analysis of an individuals’ unique physical attributes. For example: your DNA, your fingerprints, voice patterns along with possible behavioral characteristics. In other words –what makes you—Zazu Pitts– different from everybody else in the world. Your identity, yours only (your biometrics) is totally different from mine and everyone else. We have, until this moment lived with biometrics for a long time and probably not realized it. When we access our locked I phone with the ‘reading’ of one of our fingers, that is biometrics recognition. So has voice and iris recognition been part of our life for a long while. I don’t know how many times that instead of waiting on a long passport line arriving home at an airport, I put my face toward a common looking machine and it scans my iris and allows my entrance back into the United States. (President Trump wants to take away this right because I live in New York.) In the UK you can unlock your car with voice recognition. Some blood banks rely on biometrics to identify past donors and their blood type. But someone behind me just snarled: “Big Brother”. But that has not changed the penchant for greater and greater invasion of our privacy. Banks have been quietly rolling out biometrics to identify its customers: verifying them by their fingerprint, voice or eye scan. The bottom line is that companies are collecting massive amounts of our most intimate information. I was not shocked to learn that one company was not only collecting data on how we hold our cellphone but how I type on this computer.

London’s Metropolitan Police has announced what has been described as controversial plans to use live facial recognition technology to improve officers’ ability to identify suspects in the British capital. The London Police said that the technology will be deployed to places where the data recognizes people responsible for serious and violent crimes, such as gun and knife attacks and child sexual exploitation. They announced that the cameras, clearly identifiable, will be trained on small, targeted areas to scan people’s faces as they walk by. The Met police say the technology has been tried and tested. Others take issue with this conclusion. There are other studies that have flagged evidence that the technology discriminates against women and people of color — an issue that’s been documented by Federal researchers in the United States, where several cities have banned use of the technology. In one state, Maryland, in 2013 defied federal guidelines when it created a driver’s license program for undocumented immigrants, has been accused of a “betrayal of trust” when it was discovered that in recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have had direct access to those records. The access, which does not require the approval of any Maryland state official or court, is far greater than other states permit. The state legislature will begin hearings on a law restricting such searches.

India is trying to build the world’s biggest facial recognition system. But it is claimed by Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner that the system is “Moving too quickly to deploy technologies that can be overly invasive in people’s lawful daily lives risks damaging trust not only in the technology but in the fundamental model of policing by consent.” On the other hand India has used the technology to find missing children and wants to build the world’s largest facial recognition system.

In the United States, some California cities including San Francisco and Oakland as well as Somerville, Massachusetts, have decided the risks of facial recognition technology outweigh the benefits and banned its use .

What really started the intense discussion by the pubic into the issue of facial profiling or recognition was the outing of a New York startup corporation called Clearview, generally unknown to the average person whose actives were exposed. The paper revealed how Clearview was “scraping” social media networks for people’s photos thereby creating one of the biggest facial recognition databases in the world and selling access to its “faceprints”, or facial recognition software, to law enforcement agencies across the US. The startup claimed it could identify a person based on a single photo, revealing their real name, general location, and other identifiers. Clearview has convinced some cities such as Chicago, who are paying almost $50,000 for a two-year Clearview “pilot”.

Some cities and states have come to the conclusion that the risks of facial recognition technology outweigh the benefits and banned its use. In a recent face recognition study by the National Institute of Science and Technology it was determined that false positives disproportionately affect people of East and West African and East Asian descent, the elderly and children. India, as I previously noted relies heavily on the technology to find children missing and wants to build the world’s largest facial recognition system.

Does this remind you of NYC’s stop and frisk debacle? A well-considered idea, but ended being horribly and dangerously executed. Another policing concept that is under increased fire and I find it hard to not to shake my head in disbelief, is those seeking to ban the use of red light cameras and speeding detectors. I am referring to those cameras on street corners that catch you when you pass a red light or you are caught speeding. South Dakota and sixteen other states will stamp out the use of red light cameras and speed cameras by statute. Other states, including Missouri, Ohio and Florida, are considering similar prohibitions.

It boggles the mind when lawmakers succumb to the concept that everything, without any nuanced thinking, that will make our lives safer and more secure is immediately lumped under the same outcry that one’s privacy has been invaded. If you are run down by a careless driver while crossing the street, is it better to have no red light cameras that might slow a reckless driver in fear of getting a traffic ticket? Am I safer on the parkway when someone decides to see how fast they can get from point A to B and drive 30 miles over the speed limit with no inhibitions that might give them pause and stop them?

I can fully appreciate the concerns with facial recognition technology use until its use it is totally reliable. But let’s not place it in the trash bin because it is not yet 100 percent accurate. Put it to the tests we have for all other law enforcement tools, and as it progress in its reliability, be able to accept its value and not the knee jerk reaction in the use of the term “privacy”. I am more concerned that Macys’ might have my biometrics than the police if I am diagnosed with a cognitive disability, and I am roaming the streets. I am reminded of two events. The first was when my son was stabbed and the police had archaic mug shots that were useless. Second, I am reminded of the time when London experienced five simultaneous bombings. The terrorists were apprehended within hours, if not a few days, because London has cameras that blanket the City and the terrorists were identified. You can’t expect privacy when you walk the streets. You can’t expect privacy when you use a dangerous instrumentality namely, a car. And I expect all law enforcement to use all the technology possible to protect me and to apprehend those who might harm me or my family. Period.

Richard Allan,