The problem is not that computers can recognise faces. It’s that they can’t forget them
Arguments about surveillance and privacy are usually framed around Big Brother – the overweening state. But the widespread use of facial recognition in private hands suggests a more urgent danger: that not just Big Brother but anyone in the family can watch, and profit from, our faces. The private landlords of the King’s Cross development in London are using facial recognition now in their CCTV surveillance. It is not clear whether this is entirely legal, partly because the owners have been reluctant to disclose what it is they’re actually doing.
This is a development that looks like the worst of all possible worlds. Visual recognition boosted by AI is cheap, widely available and easily programmed – one hobbyist has used it to train his catflap to open only when his cat was not trying to carry prey into the house – but it is also worryingly inaccurate. Recent trials by police forces in London and south Wales, among other places, have shown a high rate of false positives, and the rate of inaccuracy is much higher with black faces than with white. A technology that cannot in real life discriminate between individuals will only tend to increase the amount of discrimination in society as a whole. It will spread false confidence and real fear.