Good Riddance to Public Facial Recognition

Long overdue

  • State governments are waking up to the privacy implications of public face recognition cameras.
  • Cops regularly access Amazon and Google cameras without warrants or user permission. 
  • Abuse from private companies is even scarier than that from law enforcement.
A young Hispanic businesswoman looks up while in an office lobby with businesspeople all around her. A facial recognition scan reveal her personal data.

SDI Productions / Getty Images

AI face-recognition is on the way out, as lawmakers get interested and private companies get cold feet. 

Online privacy is a Wild West, where any company can harvest and gather any information it likes, match it up to an individual, then sell it, or use it for, well, for whatever. But face recognition tech, which scans and identifies us in the real world, is slowly getting regulated in the US and elsewhere. Why is this relatively new technology getting attention when online privacy violations still go unchecked?

"Face recognition surveillance is raising eyebrows among policymakers for a few reasons. The first is that it is often done indiscriminately and without informed consent. The second is that it threatens and has a chilling effect on freedoms of movement and assembly," Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech, told Lifewire via email. "Finally, there are very few existing laws or regulations on how and when face recognition can be used."


In Australia this week, the government is investigating two chain stores over their use of face recognition. Meanwhile, in the US, the government is getting involved in several states, and in February this year, the IRS caved to pressure to stop using face recognition to verify identity. A clear trend is emerging: State lawmakers are going after face-recognition tech. 

"The wide use of facial recognition is a total violation of privacy. Unfortunately, many cities have cameras stationed around the town, meaning if you go outside, your privacy is being violated," Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, told Lifewire via email. "Meanwhile, using online sites and services that use facial recognition or otherwise delve into your personal life is still voluntary. Not so much when you're simply walking down the street."

There are very few existing laws or regulations on how and when face recognition can be used.

Facebook, TikTok, or other data-mining companies, "only" operate online, but given that most of our personal data and the majority of our interaction with government, commerce, and people, all take place online, the privacy risks there are probably even bigger than in the real world. And the idea that Facebook’s terms and conditions only apply on the Facebook site or in its app is absurd. It tracks you everywhere, even if you don’t have an account

But perhaps because we are used to living in an offline world when away from the screen, we have different expectations when we’re in public.

No Privacy

Cameras proliferate. London in the UK has, infamously, the highest density of surveillance cameras anywhere outside of India or China, with a 2021 survey estimating 691,000 cameras in the capital. And in recent years, private individuals have installed plenty of connected cameras in their homes. In the US, many of these cameras are regularly accessed by law enforcement without even asking the owners’ permission or requiring a warrant.

Once you add face recognition to this mix, it becomes possible to track anyone as they move through a city with no human interaction. Combine this with massive online databases of faces, and you could theoretically track people in the offline world and tie that identity to online tracking. New York City has 15,000 cameras that can track citizens with facial recognition.

And face recognition is notoriously racist and has trouble differentiating between non-white faces. 

"Stores using facial recognition detained a much higher percentage of Black and Hispanic customers while letting white thieves walk out the door," Dr. Tim Lynch, professor of Psychology of Computers and Intelligent Machines, told Lifewire via email.

The Good News

Use of face recognition by law enforcement is one thing, but abuses from the private sector may prove even worse—tracking customers inside stores to learn their shopping habits (combine this with your credit card or loyalty card details to build a profile), for example. Or cameras in ad screens all over the city, all recognizing anyone who glances at them. 

The good news is that the law is doing what it’s supposed to do in this case. Momentum is building against this incredibly invasive technology, with legislation underway in several states. Perhaps this is because elected officials understand the consequences of face-tracking in public. Whatever the reason, at least the lawmakers are finally moving in the right direction.

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