Why we should fear the imminent prevalence of facial recognition technology

Big Brother is watching.

70 years ago, this was a popular fiction book regarding the dystopian future of human societies, governments and mass surveillance etc. As technology develops, its pervasiveness makes Orwell’s fiction to today’s reality.

There have been many debates against facial recognition technology regarding its enabling of abuse and other corrosive activities like facilitation of violence and harassment, disproportionate impact on POC and vulnerable population, misuse by authorities, denial of essential rights such as “as protection against “arbitrary government tracking of one’s movements, habits, relationships, interests, and thoughts” etc.

However, there are more reasons why we should fear facial recognition technology.

Faces are hard to hide or change. They cannot be encrypted like an email or a text- they are just distantly capture-able from remote cameras and increasingly easy and inexpensive to obtain and store in the cloud- a feature that in itself stimulates “surveillance creep”.

Unlike traditional surveillance technologies- which require fresh, expensive hardware or new data sources, the data sources for facial recognition are prevalent and in the field right now, namely with body cams and CCTVs.

There is a standing legacy of names and face databases- like for driver’s licenses, social media profiles and mugshots. By this, further exploitation is possible via “plug and play” mechanisms (

Any database of faces created to identify individuals caught or arrested on camera requires preparing matching databases that- with a few lines of code can be applied to examine body cam or CCTV feed in real time.

It also worth remembering that faces, unlike fingerprints or iris patterns- are central to our identity. While it is easy to think that facial privacy is not the biggest concern for most as we show them to the world every-day, but we do.

In fact, humans have for history, created values and institutions linked with privacy protections during periods where it’s been hard to identify most people we don’t know. Biological limitations and population size/distribution also affect the number of faces we can recognize.

As succinctly worded by Chief Justice John Roberts “A person does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing into the public sphere. To the contrary, ‘what [one] seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.’

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