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Opinions roll in on whether to ban, regulate, or hardly regulate biometric facial recognition


SenseTime CEO and Co-founder Xu Li is calling for cities to establish regulations for biometric facial recognition in response to San Francisco’s ban on police and city use of the technology, the South China Morning Post reports.

At an event where the company launched 11 new products, Xu urged governments to regulate, rather than restrict, the use of facial recognition, and that regulation is crucial to the wider adoption of the technology.

“There should be standard guidelines to determine under which conditions certain emerging technologies can be used,” he says.

An editorial from Bloomberg makes a similar point, saying that while public concern about the technology is widespread and some governments are using it in a repressive way, facial recognition has significant benefits for people governments and people. The benefits could also grow as the technology evolves, with Bloomberg citing the potential to catch sex offenders entering schools or to improve public health.

The U.S. Constitution protects the country from surveillance systems like those in China, according to the editorial, and the Supreme Court has forcefully applied the Fourth Amendment to restrict government to digital data, such as historical mobile-phone location data, in the recent past.

“One concern is data,” according to Bloomberg. “A facial-recognition database differs in kind from one of fingerprints or DNA, because it’s likely to contain voluminous records on innocent people. That raises the probability of privacy violations or other misconduct. Access to such data should be limited to clearly defined purposes and subject to regular audits. One study found that only 17% of police agencies log database searches to guard against misuse; that should change.”

Bloomberg also recognizes discrimination as a concern, but says federal standards for testing and certification will help.

“Like all new technologies, facial recognition can be used for good or for ill,” the editors write. “Regulating its use in the private sector will be equally challenging, if not more so. But it’s up to policymakers to strike the right balance. Simply banning a tool with so much promise amounts to an abdication of that responsibility — and threatens to let fear stand in the way of real progress.”

The lack of regulation in China’s internet sector was a main reason that Alibaba was able to grow into the giant corporation it is today, creating close to 40 million jobs directly and indirectly, according to Alibaba Founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma. A company blog post on the Tech for Good Summit and Viva Technology Conference in Paris, both of which Ma recently attended, Ma said that creating the right kind of regulatory environment is a key role governments can play in using technology to bring opportunities to people.

“Europe worries and make rules and laws,” Ma told Publicis Groupe Chairman Maurice Lévy at the Viva event. “So, I worry about Europe. I worry about the worries of Europe.”

“If you think the technology revolution is a problem, I’m sorry to say a problem just started,” he continued. “If you think it’s an opportunity, the opportunity just started. The only thing is your mentality. If the mentality is now a worry, you’ll worry all the time.”

Governments can do very little to solve the problems of the past, or even present, with policy, but can influence the future, according to Ma.

Ma said that Alibaba hopes to enable transactions, deliveries, and travel across the globe to create 100 million jobs serving 2 billion customers by 2036. Beyond China, Ma sees Africa as one of the markets were technology can aid development.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform will hold the first of its hearings on facial recognition technology next Wednesday, May 22. The discussion in the first session will be centered on the impact of facial recognition on civil rights and liberties.

Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology reports that agencies in Chicago and Detroit have purchased real-time facial recognition technology from DataWorks Plus, though neither is using it currently, according to Wired.

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