Facial recognition technology is under new scrutiny following the appearance of a draft EU paper on the subject and disagreement between leading protagonists about how best to move forward.

The EU paper, obtained by Politico, proposes a ban on the use of facial recognition in public places for up to five years while researchers and policymakers get their heads around the technology. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has thrown his support behind the moratorium, signalling a new period of reckoning for facial recognition.

The what: Speaking at an event in Brussels, the Google chief explained his position: “I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” he said in comments reported by Reuters. “It can be immediate but maybe there’s a waiting period before we really think about how it’s being used,” Pichai added.

Other experts reject a ban on a technology’s use in order to better understand it. Microsoft’s President and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, told the news agency that there is “only one way at the end of the day to make technology better and that is to use it”.

Background: Having said in 2018 that artificial intelligence, a suite of tools from which facial recognition stems, could be a more “profound” project for humanity than “electricity or fire”, Pichai is adding his voice to a growing school of thought: in the face of such powerful technologies, most people no longer believe that market forces will craft a workable policy. 

Much of the concern stems from consent to the use of the technology, which in a public space is unlikely to be willingly given. Similarly, the technology has been shown to be often inaccurate for people of colour and women, according to WIRED.

Worryingly, cavalier uses of the technology have taken hold even in places with ostensibly strong data protection laws. In September, the Metropolitan Police force in London was forced to reverse a denial that it had shared images from its database with a property developer, Argent, working in the Kings Cross area of the city.

In a particularly shocking incident, in January of last year, a man in London received a fine after swearing at police officers who told him to uncover his face in the vicinity of a facial recognition camera, a move likely to have broken human rights laws.

What people think: Consumers appear divided. While as many as 56% of Americans trust law enforcement’s use of the tech, according to Pew Research, just 18% said the same of advertisers.

Other studies have shown that just under half of Britons would like to opt out of facial recognition and 74% of respondents to a survey in China wanted the option of traditional ID, despite a majority also believing that the technology makes transport centres, schools, malls, and condos more secure.

Meanwhile, for brands, there is muted interest in the technology, arguably tempered by privacy concerns. WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2020 found that for 54% of marketers facial recognition would not be important in the coming year, though just under a third (32%) said it would be “quite important” for either them or their clients.

Of interest: As the technology enters the conversation it has secured a place in the imagination. In 2010, the artist Adam Harvey created CV Dazzle, short for Computer Vision Dazzle, a series of looks designed to scramble facial recognition systems. Since then, it has grown into an ever-more mainstream trend. 


Sourced from Politico, Reuters, CNBC, WIRED, FT, The Guardian, Pew, WARC