Facial recognition is one of the many surveillance technologies that were the subject of controversy over the past couple of years for legitimate reasons: the privacy breaches that it results in are highly problematic while its regulation remains blurred. In the UK, for instance, it is used alongside closed-circuit TV networks, while in China it has been used by the police to identify suspect citizens and protesters using—in conjunction with other ‘classic’ biometric surveillance devices—facial recognition technology glasses that are able to recognise among crowds of people wanted criminals in no longer than 100 milliseconds.
But in the US, things might be changing. Since the killing of George Floyd last May, US Democratic lawmakers introduced several bills in order to restrict and monitor the use of biometric surveillance. The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, proposed by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon as well as by Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, would make it illegal for federal law enforcement agencies to use the technology.
At the same time, Democratic Senator Chris Coons from Delaware and Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah proposed the Facial Recognition Technology Warrant Act, which instead would require federal law enforcement to first receive a warrant from a judge before tracking a suspect live for a period longer than three days. Moreover, the bill would limit the period of surveillance allowed to a maximum of 30 days. Court administrators would also need to be informed on the request for tracking.
It’s no coincidence that such bills have both been introduced at this specific time. Recent studies have been highlighting the bias present in AI surveillance technology as well as its racial targeting, and at a moment when systemic racism within US law enforcement agencies continues to be exposed, additional concerns on the use of facial recognition technology are rising.
Senator Ed Markey recently stated that “Facial recognition technology doesn’t just pose a grave threat to our privacy; it physically endangers Black Americans and other minority populations in our country.” A recent piece published by the New York Times reported the story of an innocent black man who was misidentified in Michigan by a facial recognition software and unjustly arrested.
Surprisingly, the request for more restrictive laws for facial recognition technology has also been pushed by tech companies themselves, only after being pressured by activists to do so. In 2018, a letter addressed to Jeff Bezos and signed by around 70 civil rights and research organisations asked Amazon to reconsider providing governments facial recognition technology.
Among different points, the letter read: “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom. In overpoliced communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it. The federal government could use this facial recognition technology to continuously track immigrants as they embark on new lives. Local police could use it to identify political protesters captured by officer body cameras. With Rekognition, Amazon delivers these dangerous surveillance powers directly to the government.”
The letter was followed by 150,000 petition signatures delivered to Amazon by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington as well as an internal memo from the company’s employees and a tweet from the activist Amazon employees group Amazonians: We Won’t Build It calling out Bezos’ hypocrisy when it came to publicly backing up the BLM movement.
Despite what seemed like an initial disinterest from Bezos towards the requests, two weeks ago Amazon stated that it is going to place a one-year moratorium of Rekognition (the company’s facial recognition system), following in the steps of fellow tech giant IBM and Microsoft, which recently announced they would stop providing the government and the police with their systems until the technology is properly regulated.
In light of the recent protests asking for a radical change in US law enforcement, scrutiny towards facial recognition technology surveillance seems imperative. The proposed bills, along with the change of policy from tech companies providing the surveillance systems, could potentially set a new direction for governmental use of an extremely dangerous surveillance tool that was already revealing its flaws at the expense of innocent citizens.
China has just undergone its annual Spring Festival, also known around the world for being the biggest human migration on the planet with nearly 3 billion passenger trips made into the country between the end of January and the beginning of March. For the special occasion, the Chinese government provided police officers in megacities such as Zhengzhou, with a brand new AI technology device that is meant to facilitate the recognition of wanted criminals in no longer than 100 milliseconds.
As the travel rush for the Lunar New Year fills the nation’s train stations, officers have been wearing facial recognition sunglasses, the GLXSS ME, which is an AI appliance that enables the police to track suspect citizens even in the most crowded of locations. According to a report published on the Wall Street Journal, during the testing period of this technology, the Chinese police were able to capture seven suspects, and 26 individuals who were travelling with false identities.
Produced by the Beijing-based company LLVision Technology Co, which employs former masterminds from Google, Microsoft, Intel, and China Aeronautics, these glasses signal the next step in government surveillance. “GLXSS Force has been put into combat service. Many successful results are reported, such as seized suspects and criminal vehicles.” Reads the LLVision website. The mobile surveillance device, which is what the company calls these special specs, has certainly been proven successful in tracking suspects, but what about the unauthorised profiling of other citizens?
The specs are the most recent software introduced into China’s increasing AI-based social surveillance agenda, which is becoming particularly committed to facial recognition technologies that target citizens. In recent years, China has been investing millions into the development of tracking technologies, with the most obvious and striking example being its Social Credit System, a points system that gives individuals a score out of 800-900 for behaving as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizens. By using over 200 million CCTV cameras and rigid biometric surveillance, people’s moves and actions have been under the constant radar of AI devices, whose presence is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and government-owned.
The technology behind GLXSS ME is not particularly different from that of CCTV cameras, but it is refined: CCTV cannot reach and follow suspects everywhere, the images are blurry, and often by the time the targets are identified they might have already moved out of the field of vision of the camera. But, “By making wearable glasses, with AI on the front end, you get instant and accurate feedback. You can decide right away what the next interaction is going to be.”, Wu Fei, the company’s chief executive, told the WSJ in an interview.
The smart sunglasses embody the intensification of state surveillance powered by the Chinese government in collaboration with facial-recognition companies such as LLVision, and how easily the technology can fall into the wrong hands. Make no mistake here. The increasing ‘safety’ of civilians comes at the very high cost of everyone’s privacy; the harder it is to get away with criminal activity is directly related to the day-to-day surveillance on the ground when it comes to China’s approach.
China’s serious tilt towards using facial recognition technology for security and surveillance purposes comes as no surprise, but this new product certainly adds a darker twist to the state of policing already active in the country. And although China is steps ahead in the AI race compared to Europe or even the U.S., every time a device designed to police citizens gets used by a government, everyone’s privacy rights become more vulnerable. And that is definitely the case with GLXSS ME.