Why the Future for Post-COVID Facial Recognition Looks Bleak

Things change, but they also remain the same

Key Takeaways

  • Commercial use of facial-recognition software predates the coronavirus pandemic, but experts are unmoved by the potential for it to grow as a result of the outbreak.
  • Many states and local governments have moved to pause the adoption of facial recognition software for both private and public usage citing concerns over misuse. 
  • Flaws in reliability and racial bias in data sets are among the key reasons important industries remain reluctant to adopt facial recognition even post-COVID.
A young person with bio-reconition points overlaying their face.

Facial recognition software is used for more than unlocking your iPhone. With the pandemic forcing consumers to rethink their approach to the world, experts see an opening for mass adoption, but issues with reliability, privacy, and bias might keep it from becoming the antidote they hope.

The pandemic has caused a lot of people to rethink the way they engage with the world, from wearing masks to ordering contactless deliveries of groceries and meals. Millions have opted out of everyday errands, instead electing to reimagine the way they interact with others for the sake of public safety.

Certain key industries are already on pace to resume at-distance work conditions post-COVID. Enter facial recognition! This growing innovation is known for being connected with newer iPhones, but its mass usage in a world after COVID-19 remains a longshot by expert standards.

"It would be a mistake to think that because we were forced to adopt digital tools during the pandemic, this new way of working is here to stay forever. Of course, parts of these new digital ways of working are here to stay, but other parts are not," Nathan Furr, associate professor of strategy at INSEAD, said in an email interview with Lifewire.

"The issue, according to many activists... is the bias inherent in the system. The potential for misuse and abuse outweighs the potential benefit."

Facial Recognition Tech Commercial Use

Furr suggests humans are naturally social beings who crave attention and connection with others, but adoption of facial recognition software does not necessarily denote a lack of connection.

Instead, Americans see it as a means for increased convenience--something the American consumer culture has prioritized in recent years. With facial recognition software, the audience is already primed for its takeover.

By 2024, the facial-recognition market is expected to almost double with a total value of $7 billion, according to the market intelligence firm Markets and Markets. Aside from select smartphones, the software already has found its way into other consumer markets, including cars, banking and transportation.

In each of these cases, the primary driving force is convenience. Cars automatically open, public transit gives access to repeat customers, banking bypasses security codes to read the user’s face. When it comes to consumerism, convenience is key, and nothing has been less convenient than COVID-19.

A couple wearing masks walking down a busy street lined with cherry trees in bloom.
The World

A March 2020 survey commissioned by ClearSale found that while consumers are concerned about fraud and security, they would not trade convenience for the sake of fraud protection. However, numerous studies have shown that consumers are willing to trade their privacy information for convenience.

Strides in contactless technologies were being made before the coronavirus pandemic, but as the public continues to reimagine their relationship to consumer products, the plan to expedite the adoption of these services has caught some headway.

Facial-recognition app PopID has been deployed in the restaurant sector to allow customers to "pay with their face" in hopes of expediting order pickups. The tech not only allows automated pickups, but also payment and ordering, as well as remote temperature checks for staff members and visitors. It's a new normal likely to stay in place after the vaccine rollout. 

In a more cautious world, fingerprint and touch-based technologies are set to see a sharp decline as face-based, touchless options grow, experts say. What was once developed to increase security measures now has a decidedly health-conscious tinge. 

New tests show promising improvements in technology. A study released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology showed that software developers have improved the ability of facial recognition systems to recognize masked faces. This brings concerns regarding the abuse of the technology back into focus as researchers have suggested the innovation is too green to be adopted in large-scale ways.

"Facial recognition is a hot-potato in a world growing increasingly conscious of digital privacy."

"The use of facial recognition technology in new domains where it has not been tested poses acute challenges in terms of performance," Daniel Ho, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said in an interview with Lifewire.

"These performance concerns include the central question about demographic bias, and it will be critical to developing rigorous assessment protocols, as would be required under many of the new regulatory proposals."

Regulatory proposals would do wonders for the future, as the technology has become increasingly linked to oppressive governments.

The Chinese government deployed facial-recognition software to identify protesters during the Hong Kong uprising last year. A move that forced protesters to adopt new strategies like changing clothes and using scarves and umbrellas to hide their faces. However, misuse is not just in the Far East.

Even in democratic countries like the U.S., we see abuses of facial recognition technologies. Police departments have used their version of biometric, facial-recognition software to identify and apprehend a slew of Black Lives Matter activists who participated in mass demonstrations this summer.

State Privacy Protection for Consumers

There are concerns about the spread of facial recognition technology into the mainstream, namely in its potential for misuse. Experts in the fields of cybersecurity and computer science have long studied the excesses of facial recognition software causing legislative bodies to act against its usage.

"AI, especially regarding criminality, tends to come from biased data sets. We have data showing that this technology favors certain skin colors."

No federal laws address commercial usage of facial recognition and AI-based technologies, but state and local governments have moved to put in place privacy protections and bans on its usage.

On December 1, Massachusetts lawmakers voted to pass a new police reform bill banning the usage of facial recognition software by police departments and public agencies. Massachusetts will be joining Washington and California as the only states that have a total ban on law enforcement’s usage of facial recognition software.

Both California and Washington state’s laws define biometric data as personal property and request governing bodies get consent from the people whose data they are collecting.

In California, through the Consumer Privacy Act, residents can even request access to their data or that it be deleted or kept from third-party buyers, which may throw a wrench into plans by businesses seeking to deploy the technology.

Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon took measures a step further with the most extreme, comprehensive plans for facial recognition usage. The port city bans both private businesses and government agencies from using facial recognition technologies within city limits.

Experts suspected 2020 would be a bellwether year for privacy regarding biometric data legislation, and they were right. In part due to the coronavirus outbreak, many state and local governments have introduced legislation to mitigate the collection of facial recognition and biometric data, and at least three have debated a moratorium on the technology.

"Like with much technology, facial recognition is following a predictable trajectory: 1. businesses and people experiment with and adopt the technology; 2. social norms evolve, especially with early adopters, which often are younger demographics, and 3. laws, regulation and formal policies follow in the wake of conflict to eventually reach an equilibrium where the tech becomes a mainstay," Max Kalehoff, vice president of marketing at emotion-based AI platform Realeyes, said in an email interview with Lifewire.

Bias, Flawed Systems Prevent Mass Use

The issue, according to many activists who have pushed for moratoriums on the technology in law enforcement and private businesses, is the bias inherent in the system. The potential for misuse and abuse outweighs the potential benefit.

A person identified during a facial recognition scan.
 SDI Productions / Getty Images

“AI, especially regarding criminality, tends to come from biased data sets. We have data showing that this technology favors certain skin colors," researcher Nicol Turner Lee said in an email interview with Lifewire.

"We also know the technology is sensitive to context. When deployed, it picks up on the external realities of our world, which comes with an ugly conscience around criminal justice outcomes for people of color.” 

Turner Lee who is the director at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, said more research needs to be done in the field of artificial intelligence and facial recognition software before lawmakers can deploy them for mass public and private use. She suggests, "if the table is diverse and consists of interdisciplinary thought leaders" only then could issues regarding misuse be remedied.

Technologies with these kinds of flaws are unlikely to become social mainstays even in a post-pandemic world. At least, in an American sense. Too many kinks need to be sorted out before consumers can expect widespread adoption, but the future of mass facial recognition technologies remains alive. It is a game-changer in the same way the internet has been a game-changer.

"Imagine being able to forgo long lines and lengthy check-in and registration routines at venues like concerts, airplane boarding, shopping, the DMV for registering your car, applying for health insurance, etc. Even purchasing online at Amazon or any other retailer," Kalehoff said.

"In addition to convenience, imagine having higher confidence in the accuracy and security of those services? Those are win situations. On the other hand, facial recognition is a hot-potato in a world growing increasingly conscious of digital privacy."

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