A second argument for little or no regulation of facial recognition is that strong fears about new technologies are overreactions. Apostles of innovation compare people who are calling for banning facial recognition to the naysayers of yesteryear whose anxieties about new technologies ranging from the automobile to photography proved unfounded. From this perspective, facial recognition technology is the new fingerprint.
But the tangible harms of facial recognition are potentially far more menacing. The technology is less accurate with people of color and is biased along gender lines. And things will not get better as it becomes more accurate, because big companies, government agencies and even your next-door neighbors will seek to deploy it in more places. They will want to identify and track you. They will want to categorize your emotions and identity. They will want to infer where you might shop, protest or work — and use that information to control and manipulate you, or deprive you of opportunities.
It is likely that the technology will be used to police social norms. People who skip church or jaywalk will be noticed — and potentially ostracized. And you’d better start practicing your most convincing facial expressions. Otherwise, during your next job interview, a computer could code you as a liar or malcontent.
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A third argument in favor of using facial recognition technology is that privacy and civil liberties are best protected by creating rules that focus on all surveillance, not just a particular technology. If we ban facial recognition today, this argument goes, what happens in the future when gait recognition or devices that read brain patterns go mainstream? Some argue that banning this technology or some other one will prevent us from wrestling with larger questions that apply to all emerging technologies, like whether there is a right to be anonymous in public. Many of those questions are likely to be taken up in the courts.
But we believe society can’t wait years for institutions like the Supreme Court to update privacy protections for the digital age. By then, facial recognition infrastructure will be ubiquitous, and exploiting its full potential will seem like a good use of resources. The law singles out specific technologies all the time because they are so exceptional. Automobiles, spyware, medical devices and a host of other technologies have their own specific rules. Airplanes and telecommunications technologies were given their own federal regulatory agencies.
Facial recognition is truly a one-of-a-kind technology — and we should treat it as such. Our faces are central to our identities, online and off, and they are difficult to hide. People look to our faces for insight into our innermost feelings and dispositions. Our faces are also easier to capture than biometrics like fingerprints and DNA, which require physical contact or samples. And facial recognition technology is easy to use and accessible, ready to plug into police body cameras and other systems.