Facial Recognition, right or wrong?

I was one of many who watched the Apple keynote on Tuesday. It’s become a bit of a family tradition for us, and needless to say, ten years after the initial iPhone launch, we were more than curious to see what they’d come up with. Ten years ago, I was still 100% based in PC land, with an Ericsson phone (yeah, right? Seems forever ago…) in my pocket. But the iPhone, when I first saw one live in early 2008, had me convinced, and my husband and I bought the 3G version. We’ve upgraded every two years since. The iPhone X with facial recognition instead of fingerprint ID looks amazing, and as Apple fans, we’re excited. However, that same week, we’d read articles in the news about a Stanford study of an algorithm with an uncanny “gaydar”, with up to 81% chance of identifying gay men from a picture.

Countless people have suffered badly from the pseudoscience called phrenology. Including the Sami people of Scandinavia, as I’ve described in Last Winter’s Snow. Does this mean that Facial Recognition is going to be as bad? Photo credit: From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) and Wikimedia Commons.

This morning, I read an article which draws parallels between facial recognition software and nazi-time phrenology, where people’s abilities were supposedly determined by the shape of their skull. Debunked fake science, for sure, but even I was taken aback by the Standford study. Do we have reason to worry? First of all, let me just say that I’m surprised that this hasn’t been in the news before since Samsung and many android powered phones have been using facial recognition for some time. I guess this shows just how powerful Apple still is perceived to this day with their decisions to adopt a technology or not. Maybe it’s true that they are better than the rest. With regards to the use by Apple and the iPhone, it’s a matter of trust. Do you trust that your face measurements stay within the phone and aren’t transmitted to Apple servers? I can only answer that question for myself, and my trust in Apple is greater than my trust in say Google, whose entire business idea is based on extracting money from “data collection”…

But what about Facial Recognition per se? Well, I see it primarily as a tool, and just as any tool, it can be used to do good (protect my data, make my purchases more secure, allow me entry to another country etc.) or evil (the Stanford algorithm in the hands of evangelicals or Putin for instance). in the U.S. questions have been raised about forcing people to look at their phones by law enforcement to unlock their phones. Well, yes, that is obviously a threat, and legally, this isn’t resolved. Not there, not anywhere really. The technology is too new. However, law enforcement, if they have probable cause, can already search our devices, and the San Bernardino case shows that it is possible to even hack a relatively secure iPhone to get the data they want, even if the supplier (in that case Apple) doesn’t co-operate with the authorities for reasons of principle (which again goes to the whole trust issue).

Retina scans, facial recognition and other biometric features in e.g. passports have been in use for years. We don’t even flinch when we have our picture taken and our fingerprints scanned for our new passports, and when you use a kiosk to e.g. enter the U.S. or the EU, that data is scanned from live pictures and compared to the data stored in your passport, making it less likely that a passport is used by the wrong person. As the Stanford study shows, algorithms are better at comparing data than humans are. Changes in facial hair, hairdo, glasses etc. all have an impact on how we visually appear to an immigrations officer. Algorithms are less gullible.

As bad as nuclear weapons are, this is a photo of the planet’s first nuclear explosion, we also use nuclear power to power our Teslas… Just saying. Photo credit: Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, Civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project.

But as easily as algorithms can be used for good, so is their potential for use for nefarious purposes. The Manhattan Project is just one example for that. As a member of the LGBT community, I worry, of course, that countries, where we are persecuted, are going to use such technology against us. Ethics should always be discussed. However, using facial recognition in a phone won’t change that, either way. We don’t stop using knives to cut our food even though that same tool can be used to cause terrible harm to others. It’s illegal, period.

The problem with facial recognition or the Stanford algorithm isn’t the algorithm (which quite to the contrary actually proves that the gaydar is a real thing…) per se, it’s the fact that homosexuality and members of the LGBT community are still illegal and persecuted. It’s the legislation that is problematic, not a tool to identify us. Throughout history, nefarious groups have always found ways to “identify” us, even without technology, through e.g. infiltration etc., while we’ve found ways to try and hide, e.g. through marriage.

I welcome the advent of facial recognition and the applications it offers to us. Immigration kiosks shave valuable time off my entry to other countries, and the new iPhone technology will allow me to pay in stores, log into my bank account and other secure applications much more easily and securely (according to Apple, facial recognition is 20 times less likely to be fooled than a fingerprint). It makes my life easier and simpler. I welcome that. As for the threats, and I don’t deny their existence, they haven’t become any worse because of Apple’s adoption of the technology. We need to call out bigotry, homophobia, transphobia etc. wherever we see it.

What is your take? Curse or blessing?

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