Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Facial Recognition Is Increasing and Masks Won’t Stop It

Masks are commonplace due to COVID-19 so companies are expanding their facial recognition capacity to recognize the masked faces. Privacy concerns are more pressing than ever as the pandemic could increase society surveillance.

(TNS) — Facial recognition surveillance systems are ominous. People see how these tools threaten privacy and civil liberties and consider ways they might resist being tracked and profiled everywhere they go. One option that is regularly tossed around is the idea of frustrating identification systems with clothing and accessories that obscure and distort our appearance.

Until now, it’s mostly been art installations and academic projects experimenting with face-jamming. But with the spread of COVID-19 fueling expanded surveillance as well as the number of people who are wearing face masks, scarves and bandanas, there’s a flicker of hope that masks will make face recognition harder and harder to implement.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to opt-out so easily?

Unfortunately, more people covering their faces won’t meaningfully thwart face recognition technology, or make it any less urgent to grapple with the threats that go along with it.

Face coverings are important for public health. But they are just a speed bump for facial recognition. These systems are still flawed and they still present huge problems for privacy and civil rights. If anything, COVID-19 is likely to spur more, not less, facial surveillance.

In the U.S., the controversial facial recognition startup company Clearview AI is said to be talking with state agencies about using its technology to “track patients infected by the coronavirus”; in China, facial recognition software is linked to a phone app that codes “people based on their contagion risk” and determines when they’re cleared to enter an array of public spaces; and, in Russia, facial recognition technology is being deployed to track people who violate quarantine orders.

Since every crisis gets exploited, companies have seized on the narrative that government investment in facial recognition technology during a pandemic is a win-win. They are promising benefits that go beyond immediate health concerns, such as upgraded transportation and crowd management systems.

In some contexts, it’s harder for technology to identify a half-covered face. But companies are already creating workarounds that make educated guesses about what masked faces look like. Even if these adaptations turn out to be less effective than advertised, masks still won’t protect us from the oppressive and harmful effects of face surveillance.

We can expect government and private sector companies to keep using the technology, even if face masks around every corner start to render results more flawed. People don’t have the power to resist facial surveillance at scale. Technological cat-and-mouse games are exhausting and favor players with the most resources.

As before the pandemic hit, people of color and other marginalized populations will continue to bear the brunt of surveillance hardest. In the long run, everyone can be worn down and overwhelmed by what it takes to be hypervigilant.

Finally, it’s wrong to place all the burden of privacy and civil liberties protections on individuals. The very idea that our rights need to be safeguarded through guerilla warfare gives lawmakers a pass from upholding their part of the social contract.

Now more than ever, they need to be vigilant. Surveillance powers that are given now won’t be easy to rollback. Instead, they’ll be used to expand surveillance infrastructure and further the expectation that being watched everywhere is a normal part of life rather than something that we should tolerate only when completely necessary and justified. That’s why organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation feel the need to craft statements like, “Face Surveillance Is Not the Solution to the COVID-19 Crisis.”

It’s natural to feel conflicted about surveillance in times of crisis. But as lawmakers ponder how best to ensure public health while maintaining our civil rights, we should advocate for deeper and structural protections, revitalize our commitments to both public health and human rights and take little comfort in coincidental windfalls like obfuscation through covering our face.

©2020 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.
As more people get vaccinated and states begin to roll back some of the restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic — schools, agencies and workplaces are working on a plan on how to safely return to normal.
The solutions will be a permanent part of government even after the pandemic is over.
See simple ways agencies can improve the citizen engagement experience and make online work environments safer without busting the budget.
Whether your agency is already a well-oiled DevOps machine, or whether you’re just in the beginning stages of adopting a new software development methodology, one thing is certain: The security of your product is a top-of-mind concern.