A bedrock belief of our justice system is that someone is innocent until proven guilty. But there’s a new development that could make you a suspect in any crime simply by taking a walk down the street.
Facial recognition software has reached a point where it’s now able to overcome prior limitations in recognition and actually become a crime-fighting tool. Early models of recognition software – despite what we’ve grown accustomed to on TV or in film, where it works perfectly every time – was often flummoxed by common human variations.
If someone grew a beard or wore glasses, was a little redder in the face, or perhaps had an open mouth, early software would fail to find a match, because it was looking for static features, not the constant variety of the human condition.
Now, increased processing power and improvements of the software’s previous flaws have helped facial recognition grow more robust. It now accounts for variables, and while it is by no means foolproof, it’s certainly a vast improvement over earlier versions.
In the US, police departments are already using it. A company called NeoFace aided in a conviction this June of an armed robber in Chicago. His mug shot was matched to video footage from the crime scene. The police in Boston also caught flack for testing a facial recognition system at two outdoor concerts in the city during 2013 without notifying anyone.
The Boston police compounded their error in judgment by denying at first that they had done so, but had to come clean when an alternative newspaper discovered data and captured video on the web.
The good news is that facial recognition software’s advancement has more uses than criminal activity. For example, you may someday use it to set up access to your home without a key for family members, or make sure only your cat has access to its food in a multiple-animal situation.
THE PRE-COGS ARE NEVER WRONG
Like the errors that were ignored by law enforcement using the future-predicting “pre-cogs” of the film “Minority Report,” the problem with facial recognition software is its potential for abuse in civil liberties. While you don’t have an expectation of privacy when you’re out on the street, you also haven’t assented to having your picture automatically entered into a database for whatever purpose.
In a world where things can go wrong and mistakes are made, what happens if facial recognition software lists you as a potential suspect in a crime? What if employers or friends and family discover that? Who has the right to look at your photo, and for what reasons? You can learn a lot about a subject if the facial recognition software also tracks where you go and with whom you are seen. Do you really want to share that information with others without your consent?
Some stores in Japan are already testing out kiosks that will respond to your age and appearance with product suggestions. It’s not too much of a leap to personalized billboards that could reflect your tastes as you shop. Which could lead to some potentially embarrassing situations based on your profile and associations.
That potential there and in other uses is the ultimate conundrum of this software development sector. The brave new world of facial recognition will face many challenges going forward. But the biggest one will be preventing its use without your expressed consent. Right now, it’s the Wild West.