Why Using Facial Recognition to Enforce Rules Isn’t a Great Idea

Playing by the rules?

Key Takeaways

  • Tencent created a facial recognition technology to catch kids playing video games past a state-mandated curfew. 
  • Parental control without parents watching over kids’ shoulders isn’t a new thing. 
  • Experts say issues with facial recognition-enforced rules include personal privacy and accuracy.
Person standing in front of a facial recognition system


Getty Images / Weiquan Lin

Chinese gaming company Tencent is using facial recognition technology to enforce a gaming curfew on minors, and experts say a world of tech-enforced rules isn’t far off. 

Facial recognition software isn't new technology, but as it becomes more advanced, it has more controversial uses outside of just unlocking our smartphones. Dr. Vir Phoha, a professor at the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Syracuse University, said there are many concerns when using facial recognition to enforce rules, but that one specifically stands out from the rest. 

“My number one concern is that… private industry becomes an instrument of state to enforce laws,” Phoha told Lifewire over the phone. "And that is important because there may not be enough checks and balances within…private industry to ensure that there is transparency in how things are being done internally.”

Parental Controls Without The Parents


Tencent said it is using facial recognition technology to catch kids playing video games late hours into the night. China passed a bill in 2019 that enforces a gaming curfew on anyone under 18, and limits time spent playing a game to weekday and weekend hours. So while the technology seems invasive, it was created to solve the issue of kids going against the curfew. 

According to Digital Trends, the tech, known as “Midnight Patrol,” scans a person’s face from the computer screen to match it to a registered name and face and keeps track of their playing time accordingly. 

Child playing a PC game in a darkened room

Getty Images / ImagePatch

Even if some parents would welcome a second eye on their kids obeying the rules, can technology really replace a parent? 

“I think there is a conflict between parental rights and parental obligations. And with state-mandated things, parents are usually the best judges,” Phoha said. 

Although this specific tech is in China, the Federal Trade Commission approved a verifiable parental-consent method in 2015 that allows entities to use facial-recognition technology to obtain parental consent. This tech is a little different in that it is geared at scanning parents’ faces before kids can access certain content to ensure a parent consents to it. However, Phoha said that having a camera in your home monitoring things opens you up for potential trouble. 

“If a camera is allowed in the home, like a third party allowing access to my home, when my kid is playing, I think that's a big, big issue,” he said. 

Issues With Facial Recognition-Enforced Rules

Aside from the ethical issues of state-mandated rules or taking over a parent’s role, Phoha said that with facial recognition, there are always issues with accuracy. 

“[Facial recognition] can be spoofed very easily, specifically, if it is in front of a computer and being done remotely as Tencent’s is,” he said. 

"If it is state-mandated, and if it is coercive or resulting in punitive measures, then I'm not very comfortable with it.”

If facial recognition became a more widely accepted way to enforce rules, it could significantly affect people of color because of the tech’s inherent racial bias. Numerous studies have shown that facial recognition can misidentify people, especially those of color.

"Using the higher quality Application photos, false-positive rates are highest in West and East African and East Asian people, and lowest in Eastern European individuals. This effect is generally large, with a factor of 100 more false positives between countries,” reads part of a 2019 study by the NIST in facial recognition demographics. 

Phoha added that in scientific research, facial recognition is able to determine far more than just facial features, including detecting someone’s heart rate and identifying if a person has a certain disease

Facial recognition technology can detect your emotions, as well. For example, Amazon’s facial recognition software, known as Rekignition, can detect emotion on people’s faces, including fear. 

Phoha said that we are inching closer to a world of facial recognition/surveillance-enforced rules with these types of technology. He added that we should be especially wary of a state-mandated facial recognition rule system. 

“When I want to log into a phone and use face authentication, I can do so at my own discretion—it is my choice, and I can use it the way I want it,” he said. “But if it is state-mandated, and if it is coercive or resulting in punitive measures, then I'm not very comfortable with it.”

Was this page helpful?