Since its advent, facial recognition surveillance technology has been incredibly controversial. Though federal border security and local police departments have had success using face scanners to hunt criminals, privacy advocates decry its application.
Biometric security critics claim the technology needs refining and will prompt false arrests at its current level of development. A new story published in The Independent suggests they may be right. According to London’s Metropolitan Police, crime-stopping facial recognition tech has a 96 percent failure rate.
False Positives and Wrongful Arrests
British law enforcement hoped integrating facial recognition technology into existing closed-circuit surveillance networks would make catching criminals easier. As such, Scotland Yard spent nearly $300,000 testing face scanners on the public. The organization’s experiment was not a success, to put it lightly.
Between 2016 and 2018, the agency conducted eight biometric scanning trials in London. Results showed the UK’s facial recognition technology produced inaccurate results 96 percent of the time. In fact, the artificial intelligence enabled software incorrectly matched live video images of British citizens with criminal registry databases.
In another example, face scanners deployed in a shopping center in the London District of Stratford produced nothing but false positives. One incident involved officers detaining and fingerprinting a 14-year-old black student because the application incorrectly identified him as a criminal.
The implementation of the biometric security program also led to increased antagonism between law enforcement and the civilian population.
In one case, authorities approached a Romford man because he covered his head to avoid being scanned. The man became belligerent after learning why he was stopped and was fined $117 for swearing at police officers.
Furthermore, Scotland Yard has been criticized for not properly alerting the public that its new application had gone live.
Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch uncovered the disastrous performance of the facial recognition system via a freedom of information request. The organization also raised $13,000 to challenge the new program in court.
The Metropolitan Police deployed facial recognition technology again in 2019. In the next few weeks, the agency will release the results of those trials.
Liberty vs. Safety
U.K. authorities have defended their use of face scanners by noting it facilitated the capture of eight criminals wanted for violent offenses. Scotland Yard also pointed out the technology is being updated constantly and human officers always make the call to investigate flagged individuals.
While the overall failure of the biometric scanning trials is undeniable, its limited success is notable. The British public, which is currently surveilled by nearly 2 million CCTV cameras, might support expanded biometric monitoring if it puts otherwise elusive criminals behind bars.
In America, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was criticized by civil liberties advocates for installing face scanners in U.S. airports without making traditional public notifications. Privacy groups also warned the government might misuse its database of millions of domestic and international travelers.
Indeed, the undeclared creation of a vast biometric identification program is unnerving.
On the other hand, both the Obama and Trump Administrations approved the use of face scanners in major transportation hubs. The federal government deemed the threat of foreign terrorists and criminals serious enough to merit implementing a mass surveillance solution. Just like in Britain, the biometric security system did produce results.
The CBP reported face scanners allowed it to identify five people who were traveling with falsified visas. The agency also said it caught 64 people trying to cross the U.S. border with other individuals’ travel documents.
Overall, the debate surrounding the use of facial recognition technology can and should continue. But given the outrage surrounding secret mass surveillance tools like PRISM and Tempura eventually died down, its positive outcome seems assured.