The EU’s proposed ban on facial recognition in the new COVID-19 world – finding balance between privacy and public safety

The EU’s proposed ban on facial recognition in the new COVID-19 world – finding balance between privacy and public safety

At the start of 2020, the European Commission was seriously considering the ban of facial recognition technology in public spaces, temporarily, until the EU could properly assess the implications this technology would have on privacy regulations. This approach would have built on the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) that established regulatory requirements on data protection and privacy in the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) as well as the transfer of personal data beyond the EU and EEA.

This approach was reasonable in terms of personal information security and in line with general public concerns. However, the new year gave rise to the viral global pandemic of COVID-19. Thus, began the push towards emerging technologies such as facial recognition that would further its potential capabilities as well as advance the debate as to how and when the technology should be deployed.

The Rise of Facial Recognition

Before discussing the current COVID-19 situation, it is important to have a better understanding around the prior history of this technology. How facial recognition was being utilised is very different than how the general public perceived that it could be used. Many global travellers were getting used to entry kiosks at international airports where facial recognition is used to validate an individual and his or her passport photo. This simplified and automated process allows for less congested queuing and easier entry through passport control areas. In this setting, facial recognition technology is only used to confirm that the face being imaged is the same as a comparative image of an individual’s face. In short, it’s confirming recognition between two images – one-to-one verification. It is not a comparison of a facial image against many other disparate images held in a database.

Today’s Reality

As COVID-19 spreads throughout the world, health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale. In addition to the use of mobile phone tracking data, facial recognition tools have come to the forefront for not only their ability to distinguish and recognise individuals as a means of public control in this locked down environment, but also as a means of contact-less access control which would allow higher levels of security without the need to utilise touch biometrics such as fingerprint readers – thus mitigating the potential for virus transmission.

If the Coronavirus experience encourages a wider use of facial recognition and similar “touchless” systems throughout the world, facial recognition and similar technologies that minimise face-to-face encounters may become the new norm for “checking in” large numbers of people. In addition to airports and border crossings, this approach could be adapted for:

  • Stadiums
  • Commuting systems
  • Office buildings
  • Government meetings
  • Grocery stores (with the development of “cashierless” technology)

Other “touchless” forms of biometrics – iris recognition, gait, etc. – may also see increased adoption. If so, it is possible that “contact” forms of biometrics (e.g., fingerprint systems) may be de-emphasized over time, although that is likely to be a slow process due to the significant level of incumbent fingerprint-based systems in use today.

Making the use case for facial recognition as a means of minimising social contact to reduce the spread of a virus such as COVID-19 has already raised the concerns of civil liberty experts in Russia and China. Both countries utilise facial recognition technology to track citizens leaving their homes despite quarantine restrictions as well as govern whether they are following local regulations and restrictions.

China is turning to furthering the capabilities of the technology to be utilised even with masks. Hanwang Technology, LTD has indicated that it has developed and tested a technology that “can successfully recognise people even when they are wearing masks.” The recognition rate of those tested confirms a 95% success rate compared to a 99.5% success rate for individuals without a mask. The Chinese video game maker Tencent, that effectively utilised Apple’s Face ID application to recognise smartphone users, has unveiled a potential solution that would allow users to be recognised even with a mask on their face.

“As debates between public good and too much surveillance begins to fester – the use of masks to combat the spread of the virus seem to have thrown a curve ball at the further reaching of facial recognition.”

In the past, companies that have utilised biometrics, such as facial recognition, have gone to great lengths to ensure biometric images are stored only on an assigned credential and not in a common database due to concerns about the maintenance of an individual’s private information. However, recent events surrounding COVID-19 and the use of emerging technologies in support of the public good has created a very real push-pull dynamic where a technology’s convenience and capability must be balanced with privacy and security mandates.

New Technology and the Civil Liberties Frontier

Having been engaged in the design, specification and implementation of technology within the electronic security environment for over 20 years, I believe that the new environment that will  emerge will only further the drive to optimise and monetise facial recognition technology.  Whether it is for private commercial use or the public sector’s greater good, the technology itself will continue to evolve and those seeking to develop and benefit from it will find a space to further its potential.

As we are seeing, less regulated environments such as in Russia and China will become incubators for testing facial recognition tools. Organisations taking a lead in developing recognition technologies will continue to accelerate their efforts in proving its benefits, its trustworthiness, and its ability to make the public at large more secure. The key and the concern are how these technologies will be utilised for and against the public and what this will mean for everyone’s safety and security.

Author:  Terry King, Regional Director, EMEA/APAC, Guidepost Solutions

Copyright Lyonsdown Limited 2021

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