Thailand orders facial biometrics collection for SIM use in Muslim-majority states

Thailand’s army has ordered telecoms operating in the country’s three most southern states to require the users of all 1.5 million mobile phone numbers in the region to submit photos for biometric facial recognition, according to an Agence France-Presse report published by the Philippines’ ABS-CBS News.

The three majority-Muslim states of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat were annexed by Thailand in 1902, and have experienced widespread violence resulting in roughly 7,000 deaths since 2004, and opponents of the plan say the biometric photo requirement is the latest in a series of moves targeting the Malay-Muslim population.

A military spokesman defended the move, saying SIM cards have been used to detonate bombs, and biometrics can help to identify perpetrators. After October 31, any mobile users in the three southern states or four districts of neighboring Songkhla province will have service cut off.

Rights advocacy group Cross Cultural Foundation called the facial recognition technology “flawed,” and said it often leads to racial profiling and wrongful arrests.

People in the rest of the country are not required to likewise register their SIM cards, but those who do not will lose reception if they travel to the southern Thailand, according to the report.

Another deployment, another worry

Applications of biometrics by military juntas and corrupt regimes are drawing increasing attention from rights advocates and facial recognition skeptics. An article in Computer Weekly is the latest to suggest that facial biometrics pose a threat to fundamental privacy rights.

HackerOne Director of Product Management Miju Han tells Computer Weekly that accuracy rates below 100 percent can result in hundreds or thousands of false positives each day is the technology is deployed in high-traffic areas, and that users have generally not consented to sharing personal information in public deployments.

Increasing public comfort with facial biometrics based on smartphone applications does not necessarily indicate greater public support for public surveillance systems with facial recognition, some argue.

“The data is being used for identification rather than authentication. As such, the nature of the usage is significantly dissimilar to the more readily accepted uses on a personal device,” says senior IEEE member and Plymouth University Professor of Information Security Steven Furnell.

“Ultimately, we’re at a nascent stage of the technology. These issues can be ironed out by enriching it with enough intelligence to make it a sufficiently safe and powerful tool to deploy in the future. It’s just not ready yet,” argues VMware Vice President and CTO of EMEA Joe Baguley.

Other cybersecurity professionals see legitimate applications of facial biometrics for law enforcement, but express concern that when biometrics are captured from general populations, as in China, rather than limited lists such as of convicted criminals, the systems raise different questions.

Rights advocates have expressed concern about biometrics projects ranging from the Philippines national ID to the FBI’s massive facial recognition database.

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