If you're reading this in the United States, there's a 50 percent chance that a photo of your face is in at least one database used in police facial-recognition systems. Police departments in nearly half of U.S. states can use facial-recognition software to compare surveillance images with databases of ID photos or mugshots. Some departments only use facial-recognition to confirm the identity of a suspect who's been detained; others continuously analyze footage from surveillance cameras to determine exactly who is walking by at any particular moment. Altogether, more than 117 million American adults are subject to face-scanning systems. These findings were published Tuesday in a report from Georgetown Law's Center for Privacy and Technology.
Microsoft's facial-recognition technology is getting smarter at recognizing people with darker skin tones. On Tuesday, the company touted the progress, though it comes amid growing worries that these technologies will enable surveillance against people of color. Microsoft's announcement didn't broach the concerns; the company merely addressed how its facial-recognition tech could misidentify both men and women with darker skin tones. Microsoft has recently reduced the system's error rates by up to 20 times. In February, research from MIT and Stanford University highlighted how facial-recognition technologies can be built with bias.
Imagine a world in which you can scan your face to board a train, check into a hotel, order a meal at a café, or even track your food from farm to table. In China, all of this is already happening. Facial recognition became more pervasive this year after the Chinese government in December 2017 announced an ambitious plan to achieve greater face-reading accuracy by 2020. The country also plans to introduce a system that will identify any of its 1.3 billion citizens in just three seconds. Public and private enterprises have rushed to adopt the futuristic, artificial intelligence-powered technology, implementing facial-recognition systems in transportation networks, medical facilities, and law enforcement initiatives.
Microsoft president Brad Smith has called on governments around the world to immediately start work on adopting laws to regulate facial-recognition technology. It's not often that companies that stand to gain from a technology call for new laws that might constrain them. But Smith is worried enough about the spread of surveillance systems with powerful facial recognition that he's calling for lawmakers to act now. Tech companies are faced with a "commercial race to the bottom", which should have a "floor of responsibility" that allows competition but outlaws the use of facial recognition in ways that harm democratic freedom or enable discrimination. The call to action comes as China increasingly adopts facial recognition to monitor public spaces.
King's Cross Central's developers said they wanted facial-recognition software to spot people on the site who had previously committed an offence there. The detail has emerged in a letter one of its managers sent to the London mayor, on 14 August. Sadiq Khan had sought reassurance using facial recognition on the site was legal. Two days before, Argent indicated it was using it to "ensure public safety". On Monday, it said it had now scrapped work on new uses of the technology.