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Continued focus on privacy critical to foster growing public support for facial recognition: FaceFirst CEO


With the rapid increase in deployments of facial recognition technology across the U.S., social dialogue about its implications for public safety and privacy is taking on more importance. Think tanks and lobby groups like the Georgetown Center on Privacy & Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have sounded alarms over various applications of facial recognition, while at the same time popular consumer products like the iPhone X have introduced the technology to millions of people whose experience with and understanding of it were previously very limited.

Public support for the technology is growing, as recent research from FaceFirst shows that 64 percent of Americans think that facial recognition should be used to recognize terrorists and prevent crime. FaceFirst CEO Peter Trepp told Biometric Update in an exclusive interview that the significant increase in public support for the technology over the past year or two is partly driven by violent incidents like those in Manchester and Las Vegas, and partly by its deployment for popular convenience applications like device unlocking. The growing number of cameras deployed in public spaces has also contributed to an evolution of the concept of privacy, according to Trepp, in which companies like FaceFirst have a significant stake in the protection of individual privacy.

“We at FaceFirst take privacy very seriously,” he says. “It is one of our highest priorities. It is absolutely critical in an industry like ours, with technology as powerful as ours, in everything we do, from designing the software to deploying it, to training folks on how to use it, and operationalizing our systems with best practices. We do all of that with an eye towards privacy, and we take it very seriously.”

FaceFirst points out on its website that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has noted that facial recognition technology can be less intrusive than traditional surveillance systems, and Trepp says that the earlier proliferation of security cameras without facial recognition has contributed to the greater willingness of people in China and some other international markets to accept the technology.

“If I’m going to be on camera, then I might as well use facial recognition for all kinds of things for my life,” he says, and while the U.S. market has not yet reached that comfort level, it will soon.
“Everyday items that you have, like your house key, your car key, your ATM card, your passwords, are all going away in favor of facial recognition,” Trepp predicts. “Think about the implications of that! So, all of us in the industry are thinking about how we protect your face.”

As the use of facial biometrics in the West spreads from safety and security applications to an increasing number of convenience applications with opt-in requirements, the responsibilities of database owners to make sure biometric data is being handled correctly and not misused remains the same, Trepp points out. In security applications, that often means using best practices and software to ensure that only the biometrics of alleged bad actors are stored, and more generally means that systems are closed and data is encrypted. “There are a lot of layers here to protect against potential misuse of the system.”

Laws may eventually play a larger role in mandating the balance that facial recognition companies must strike between security and privacy interests. Trepp hopes so, saying: “There should be laws. There should be accountability.”

The industry will have to play a role in the creation of sustainable regulations, though.

“I think it is incumbent upon companies like FaceFirst and some of the industry groups we work with to start to outline and use these policies, because as with lots of technology, the laws lag behind the technology,” Trepp says. He points out that even in the absence of federal laws, regulations like the restrictive Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) law enacted at the state level by Illinois in 2008 have not been adopted elsewhere. Washington State’s relatively comprehensive regulations, on the other hand, do not impede FaceFirst’s business, providing a possible way forward for industry regulation.

Whatever privacy protections governments do eventually adopt, they will be catching up with a moving target. The technology has been spurred by innovations in both hardware, in the form of specialized chips like GPUs, and software, in the form of advanced artificial intelligence, neural networks, and machine learning, Trepp explains. The improved speed and performance they yield is allowing facial recognition to reach its long-term promise of real-time identification. The industry is exploding, he says, and in the process, changing the way people interact with the technology, and therefore how comfortable they are with it.

“It’s a convergence of a number of things: The technology has finally gotten fast enough and reliable enough that viable business and government applications are being realized and adopted. We’re just seeing the beginning of that, and the scale of that in a pretty major way. The challenge for the industry is to figure out which areas are going to expand first, and where adoption is going to be most widely accepted.”

That challenge will be significant, as there are clearly pockets of resistance to widespread deployment of facial recognition. Trepp notes that younger people are more accepting of the technology, however, and believes that as people gain an understanding of how it works, and how it can make their lives easier, privacy concerns will be alleviated, and support for its use will continue to grow.

“It’s going to be life-changing for lots of people in our everyday experience, in many, many positive ways,” he says. “It is a powerful technology, and does run the risk of being misused, no question about it. But I think by and large that won’t be disruptive enough to stop the technology from taking off, and it’s going to be a positive thing for a lot of people.”

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