'One Thursday in April, in the middle of final exam season, an American student named Amara Majeed woke up in her Brown University dorm room to find 35 missed calls on her phone and numerous death threats on her social media pages.
The reason, she soon learned, was that police in Sri Lanka – where her parents had come from – had released a photograph wrongly identifying her as one of the terrorists who had killed more than 250 people at three churches and three hotels in Colombo two days earlier. Specifically, she had been misidentified by facial recognition software employed by an enterprising assistant superintendent.
The story is symptomatic of how quickly and how widely facial recognition technology (FRT) is being deployed in the real world despite serious questions about its accuracy and its fairness. In Oregon, police are using FRT developed by Amazon to catch petty thieves and even to identify dead bodies, unconscious people and people who refuse to give their names.
China's use of FRT is far more extensive: its cities and roads are rapidly filling up with live AI-powered cameras, not only to recognise jaywalkers and flash their identity on giant screens but to enforce a terrifying purge against Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang province, forcing as many as 1m people into prison camps.
In Europe, Britain is the leader of the pack. South Wales Police has conducted more than a dozen public tests, including at a peaceful protest against an arms fair in Cardiff where demonstrators were perturbed to see a white police van marked "facial recognition".
The Metropolitan Police, too, have conducted numerous trials: twice at Notting Hill Carnival, once at the Port of Hull docks, twice at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, London, and once at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, scanning the ground for a list of 50 individuals known for "obsessive behaviour" towards public figures. Often, this has happened without any new laws and regulations, without much public scrutiny and with a minimum of political oversight.
But in the US, some cities are taking a different approach. San Francisco, at the heart of the American technology industry, is likely to vote today to ban law enforcement bodies from using FRT in any way – possibly the first in the world, and certainly the first in the US, to do so. Oakland, a neighbouring city famous as the birthplace of the Black Panther movement, and Somerville, a small town near Boston, may be close behind.'
Read more: US faces its first ban on 'inhumane' facial recognition technology. Should the UK follow suit?
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22 May 2019
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