Face recognition technology is a special menace to privacy, racial justice, free expression, and information security. Our faces are unique identifiers, and most of us expose them everywhere we go. And unlike our passwords and identification numbers, we can’t get a new face. So, governments and businesses, often working in partnership, are increasingly using our faces to track our whereabouts, activities, and associations.
Fortunately, people around the world are fighting back. A growing number of communities have banned government use of face recognition. As to business use, many communities are looking to a watershed Illinois statute, which requires businesses to get opt-in consent before extracting a person’s faceprint. EFF is proud to support laws like these.
Face Recognition Harms
Let’s begin with the ways that face recognition harms us. Then we’ll turn to solutions.
Face recognition violates our human right to privacy. Surveillance camera networks have flooded our public spaces. Face recognition technologies are more powerful by the day. Taken together, these systems can quickly, cheaply, and easily ascertain where we’ve been, who we’ve been with, and what we’ve been doing. All based on a unique marker that we cannot change or hide: our own faces.
In the words of a federal appeals court ruling in 2019, in a case brought against Facebook for taking faceprints from its users without their consent:
Once a face template of an individual is created, Facebook can use it to identify that individual in any of the other hundreds of millions of photos uploaded to Facebook each day, as well as determine when the individual was present at a specific location. Facebook can also identify the individual’s Facebook friends or acquaintances who are present in the photo. … [I]t seems likely that a face-mapped individual could be identified from a surveillance photo taken on the streets or in an office building.
Government use of face recognition also raises Fourth Amendment concerns. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly placed limits on invasive government uses of cutting-edge surveillance technologies. This includes police use of GPS devices and cell site location information to track our movements. Face surveillance can likewise track our movements.
Face recognition also has an unfair disparate impact against people of color.
Its use has led to the wrongful arrests of at least three Black men. Their names are Michael Oliver, Nijeer Parks, and Robert Williams. Every arrest of a Black person carries the risk of excessive or even deadly police force. So, face recognition is a threat to Black lives. This technology also caused a public skating rink to erroneously expel a Black patron. Her name is Lamya Robinson. So, face recognition is also a threat to equal opportunity in places of public accommodation.
These cases of “mistaken identity” are not anomalies. Many studies have shown that face recognition technology is more likely to misidentify people of color than white people. A leader in this research is Joy Buolamwini.