In the past, face recognition was thought to be only available to security agencies and deep tech corporations. As a result, people were more likely to see facial recognition in a Hollywood blockbuster than in real life. However, things are changing. Face recognition software solutions are being implemented in hotels, restaurants, and public venues across the USA. Most companies claim that those are in place to help businesses enforce mask-wearing rules and health screening guidelines. That might be the case, but the thought that images of you might be stored on a server located on the other side of the world is scary.
Police departments across the USA started openly testing out such face recognition tech too. Before the pandemic, they aimed to catch criminals who might be attending concerts or mass events. Police officers would get an alert that a specific individual is in the crowd. Companies such as ClearView, used by many police departments across the country, advertise themselves as face recognition search engines. ClearView, in particular, claims to have the largest known mugshot searchable database that consists of 3+ billion facial images sourced from public-only web sources.
Government use of such services raises a lot of privacy questions but also appears to be serving a purpose. Regular folks want to see bad folks behind bars, and law enforcement must always have the best tools to enforce the law. However, over the last years, the increased use of the technology has made face recognition commercial. Recently the technology was significantly improved and suddenly became more affordable, which opened doors to developers and corporations with any budget and size to explore it. As a result, many industries started adopting face recognition technology, with one of the prominent examples being the smartphone market leaders.
While the technology was slowly introduced among many phone brands such as Samsung and Motorola, facial recognition became the norm when Apple adopted it for its iPhone X model launched in 2017. Almost immediately, facial recognition became one of the top security options that keep smartphone devices safe. However, while it is indeed astonishing not to need to remember passwords, the convenience also comes with a grain of salt – as such technologies might be undermining anonymity as we know it.
If used correctly, the technology is generally here to help. For example, high-profile antivirus software solutions allow you to see the person who tries to unlock your phone should your device get stolen. With the image taken and delivered to your email, you can quickly go to the police and work with them to find the perpetrator’s identity. But such capabilities can also be used in malicious ways and may essentially kill anonymity.
According to Wired, the FBI have approximately 600 million mugshots in their database. The government agencies are in place to serve and protect the country’s citizens, but things can go wrong if this database ends up in the wrong hands. The same goes for private companies like ClearView with libraries containing billions of images – cyberattacks happen all the time, and often those go unreported for years.
Imagine if a foreign state ends up in possession of a database containing every US citizen’s image. The information in such a database could then be used for identification and to track people around. With great power comes great responsibility, so we hope such databases and tools will be safely stored and regulated so they are used to help people.