In addition to questions about the continued use of potentially unreliable and unregulated live facial recognition (LFR) technology, masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus may be presenting a further challenge to the technology.
A recently published letter by London Assembly members Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM and Sian Berry AM to Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick have asked whether the LFR technology could be withdrawn during the COVID-19 pandemic on the ground that it has been shown to be generally inaccurate, and it still raises questions about civil liberties.
Also, concerns are now being raised about how the already questionable accuracy of LFR could be challenged further by people wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The two London Assembly members argue in the letter that a lack of laws, national guidelines, regulations and debate about LFR’s use could mean that stopping Londoners or visitors to London “incorrectly, without democratic public consent and without clear justification erodes our civil liberties”. The pair also said that this could continue to erode trust in the police, which has been declining anyway in recent years.
The letter highlights concerns about the general inaccuracy of LFR. This is illustrated by the example of first two deployments of LFR this year, where more than 13,000 faces were scanned, only six individuals were stopped, and five of those six were misidentified and incorrectly stopped by the police. Also, of the eight people who created a ‘system alert’, seven were incorrectly identified.
Other concerns by the pair outlined in the letter about the continued deployment of LFR include worries about the possibility of mission creep, the lack of transparency about which watchlists are being used, worries that LFR will be used operationally at protests, demonstrations, or public events in future e.g. Notting Hill Carnival, and fears that the technology will continue to be used without clarity, accountability or full democratic consent
Many commentators from both sides of the facial recognition debate have raised concerns about how the wearing of face masks could affect the accuracy of facial recognition technology.
It has been reported that Chinese electronics manufacturer Hanwang has produced facial recognition technology that is 95% accurate in identifying the faces of people who are wearing masks.
Also, in Moscow, where the many existing cameras have been deployed to help enforce the city’s lockdown and to identify those who don’t comply, systems have been able to identify those wearing masks.
In France, after the easing of lockdown restrictions, it has been reported that surveillance cameras will be used to monitor compliance with social distancing and the wearing of masks. A recent trial in Cannes using French firm Datakalab’s surveillance software, which includes an automatic alert to city authorities and police for breaches of mask-wearing and social distancing rules looks set to be rolled out to other French cities.
Facial recognition is another tool which, under normal circumstances (if used responsibly as intended) could help to fight crime in towns and city centres, thereby helping the mainly retail businesses that operate there. The worry is that there are still general questions about the accuracy of LFR, its impact on our privacy and civil liberties and that the COVId-19 pandemic could be used as an excuse to use it more and in a way that leads to mission creep. It does appear that in China and Russia for example, even individuals wearing face masks can be identified by facial recognition camera systems, although many in the west regard these as states where a great deal of control on the privacy and civil liberties population is exercised and may be alarmed at such systems being used in the UK. The pandemic, however, appears to be making states less worried about infringing civil liberties for the time being as they battle to control a virus that has devastated lives and economies, and technology must be one of the tools being used in the fight against COVID-19.