Facial recognition is everywhere — here's why that's concerning

Using your face unlock your phone is convenient. But now facial recognition technology is being pitched as the future of everything, from advertising to law enforcement. Here's why that might make you uncomfortable.

Whether the technology is being used for convenience or surveillance needs to be considered

A woman sets up her facial recognition as she looks at her Apple iPhone X at a store in New York. Experts say that having facial recognition as a default security system on our smartphones has made people more comfortable with the technology, despite potential privacy concerns. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

How comfortable are you with facial recognition?

Apple garnered lots of buzz over the launch of Face ID to unlock its iPhone X, and facial recognition software has since become the security standard for smartphones.

Now the technology is being pitched as the future of everything from advertising to law enforcement.

And, sure, it's convenient. But should the normalization of facial recognition be concerning? You may be comfortable using it to unlock your phone — but would you be comfortable if it were used to track your attendance at school? Or by governments to deem your trustworthiness?

Experts caution that the concern is not all facial recognition is created equal; there are different ways that these smart systems work, depending on their purpose. Broadly speaking, it often comes down to whether they're being used for convenience or for surveillance.

Authentication vs. identification

Consider whether facial recognition is being used for authentication, by comparing your image against another image of yourself, as is often the case when unlocking your phone. Or consider if it is being used for the purposes of identification, comparing your image to a database to search for a match and associate a name to a face in a crowd.

The appeal of facial recognition is that "you cannot forget it, like a password, and cannot lose it, like a physical token," said Julie Thorpe, an expert in information technology security and an associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Japanese rugby player Teruya Goto poses with the facial recognition system that will be used for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. Developed by NEC Corporation, the system will be used to identify athletes, officials, volunteers, media and other staff — but not spectators. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

Considering how often we unlock our phones throughout the day  — this isn't like unlocking the front door of your home, which you may do just a few times a day — it has become desirable to have protection without having to fumble around with a complex alphanumeric passcode.

"Biometric systems, such as face recognition, reduce the number of times you need to enter a password or PIN, which in usual situations reduces the time and effort required to login," said Thorpe.

But the ubiquity that comes from having this technology built in as a default security system on smartphones has made us increasingly comfortable with the tool — and that makes some experts wary.

"They're convenient," said Pablos Holman, an inventor at the U.S.-based Intellectual Ventures Laboratory. "But certainly it's giving people the sense that it is OK for computers to identify them with facial recognition."

Apple exemplifies the right way to use biometrics, according to Holman, explaining that with the iPhone, "you're only using a biometric to authenticate yourself to your own device, but there's no central database of fingerprints or faces."

But he cautions that "unfortunately, there are very few other examples where biometrics are used in this way."

Instead of a signature

While reports suggest that consumers are increasingly concerned about their privacy and the misuse of their personal data, historically, when we get comfortable with a technology, we stop being as alert or as aware of it around us, said Ann Cavoukian, the distinguished expert-in-residence at Ryerson University's Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence.

In addition to using facial recognition to unlock your phone, authorize downloads and pay for purchases, there are credit cards that are using it as a security measure instead of a signature.

Visitors experience facial recognition technology at a Face++ booth during the China Public Security Expo in Shenzhen last fall. In China, facial recognition is being used by the government to help monitor the movements of the country's 1.4 billion people. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Beyond the ways consumers can benefit from the convenience of this new tech, corporations are also using it on us: social media platforms can automatically identify users in photos, and shopping malls can use it to track consumers. Those things combined are inevitably creeping into advertising, targeting us in real time — the way online ads already do.

And what happens when this technology, which once caused such a stir, becomes normalized?

After all, there are cameras everywhere we go, and as the technology gets more robust, we'll reach a level of tracking or identification that is unprecedented, said Cavoukian.

More troubling yet is the fact that this technology is still far from perfect. For some facial recognition systems, if the lighting conditions are unusual, they may reject a legitimate user, Thorpe said. Then there's the issue of false positives, where two individuals can have sufficiently similar faces that a recognition system may identify them as the same.

While it may not seem like anything more than an inconvenience when Face ID doesn't recognize your face in low light, the consequences can be dire, as facial recognition technology is being utilized by an ever-growing list of industries.

Prone to misidentifying

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union has found that the technology is prone to misidentifying faces, which can have terrible repercussions in fields like law enforcement, for example.

Facial recognition is also being used in airports to confirm the identities of passengers. And while critics worry about what a system like this means for privacy and the freedom of travellers, that's not slowing its spread. According to NPR, U.S. Customs and Border Protection hopes to have face scanners installed at all the nation's airports within four years.

Facial recognition is increasingly being used at airports around the world to confirm the identities of passengers, like here in Nice, France. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Meanwhile, in the U.K., some schools are now using facial recognition technology to take attendance, triggering additional concerns over privacy and the consent to be tracked.

And in China, facial recognition is being used by the government to employ a new kind of "digital authoritarianism," with the intent of assigning citizens a social credit score based on how trustworthy they are deemed to be. While the government refers to this networked tracking system as "Internet plus," critics call it a 21st-century police state. As Holman puts it, the technology is "being deployed to watch people very deliberately, to see if you step out of bounds."

From airports to banks, and hotels to sidewalks, seemingly everything that people say and do is being monitored in detail, used to do everything from predicting crime to co-ordinating emergency services — and ultimately controlling the lives of those being tracked.

So as Apple unveils its latest and greatest shiny gadgets with impressive new features, Cavoukian warns, it is to our benefit to think of not only how we use these tools — but how corporations, organizations and government might use them as well.

While we may like using them, we don't necessarily like it when they're used on us.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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