Opinion | The futile withdrawal of facial recognition software by Big Tech4 min read . Updated: 22 Jun 2020, 09:36 PM IST
This technology is bound to proliferate regardless of flaws as it’s being pursued by such regimes as China’s for surveillance
Three American big tech companies have recently announced that they will be pulling back their facial recognition programs. Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all say that they are either cancelling their programs or placing holds on police departments using their facial recognition algorithms.
According to a letter to US legislators from IBM’s chief executive officer Arvind Krishna, the company is to abandon general purpose and analysis software for facial recognition. His letter stated that his firm does “not condone uses of any technology…. for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms…." Amazon has issued a one-year ban on police departments using Rekognition, its facial search technology. And Microsoft is waiting for new legislation to be adopted before selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement organizations.
Many self-righteous observers say this is a good thing, and the author of a recent article in Forbes says, “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of IBM, Microsoft and Amazon and their roles in influencing other tech companies to take a stronger stand on human rights and anti-discrimination…. Let’s hope other tech companies start screening their technology through similar human rights and anti-discrimination glasses and follow their lead."
Caucasians in the US may be coming to grips to the fact that systemic racism indeed exists in their country. This follows the recent events in Minnesota that provoked protests in America and other parts of the Western world. Many US corporations have now started to observe a “Juneteenth" holiday on 19 June. This is the anniversary of the 1865 order proclaiming the freedom of African- American slaves. When I lived and worked in the US, Juneteenth was unheard of, and certainly not celebrated nationwide as a holiday.
The travesty is that African-Americans were still treated as unequal human beings after 1865. They subsequently lost the right to vote in many states through loopholes left in central (Federal) legislation. These were not fixed until a hundred years later, when US president Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on 6 August 1965. In the actual sense, America only became a true democracy almost two decades after India did. It might be more appropriate for US firms to commemorate 6 August.
The recent moves on facial recognition are indeed a volte face for some big tech firms. In mid 2018, Rekognition, Amazon’s open application programming interface for facial recognition, made news for showing startling results on a test run by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This organization test-scanned the faces of all 535 members of US Congress against 25,000 public mugshots of arrested people and/or criminals. No member of Congress was in these images, but Amazon’s system generated 28 false matches, with obvious implications. At the time, Amazon reacted that the ACLU’s tests were run at its default confidence threshold of 80%, and not at the 95% that the company recommends for law enforcement applications where false identification can have serious consequences. It appears that such nuanced arguments are now passé. Rekognition and its two brethren have been voluntarily stopped for a while.
Other companies such as Apple Facebook and Google that routinely use face recognition technology are still conspicuously absent from the conversation. So are well-funded startups such as Clearview AI, whose technology is being used by over 2000 law enforcement agencies and companies around the world. Clearview claims to have scraped more than 3 billion photos off the internet, including from popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. It retains those photos in its database even after users delete them from the respective platforms or take their accounts private.
Meanwhile, FaceApp is a seemingly innocuous game app on smartphones that allows you to model how you might look as you age. It caused an uproar in 2017 because of the racial undertones of filters it had added to its app. The filters would show you what your face would look like if you were Asian, Indian, “Black" or “White". The blow-back caused FaceApp to take down the filters in a matter of hours. More sinister, however, were its user licence agreements, which simply meant that once you uploaded an image of your face, the app could do anything it wanted, anywhere in the world, now and forever, with your face.
But the real problem for American big tech is that FaceApp is Russian. It is owned by a firm called Wireless Lab OOO, which is headquartered in St Petersburg in Russia.
Meanwhile, China’s technology advances in facial recognition technology imply that you don’t even need to first voluntarily put an image of your face on the internet for it to become accessible to law enforcement agencies. China’s surveillance of its own citizens is well known.
It has also flung its facial-recognition net farther afield. Chinese “aid" money doled out to some Latin American and African countries goes into buying surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology from Chinese giants such as Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua. Both firms are banned from selling their equipment to the US government and its law enforcing agencies. Many of their cameras also use chips from telecom giant Huawei, which is at the centre of the US-China trade war face-off.
Despite the fine intentions of Amazon, IBM and Microsoft (and the tacit admission of the limitations of their own facial-recognition technology), America simply cannot afford to stop its work here. The rest of the world isn’t standing still, and America’s most prominent detractors have been going after the technology assiduously. Facial recognition software is here to stay.
Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India