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Facial recognition guide from VPN Compare presents incomplete picture



As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has said, facial recognition is “one of the most pervasive surveillance technologies” across the globe. Indeed. It is an industry estimated to continue to increase with an expected worth of upwards of $15 billion by 2025.

But now comes “the ultimate” handbook: Facial Recognition: An Ultimate Guide,” prepared by VPN Compare’s News Editor David Spencer, who said the manual represents “extensive research [that] outlines privacy concerns country by country.”

“Most people are unfamiliar with facial recognition technology, how it is used, and how it affects you,” Spencer wrote, but added, “this lack of knowledge is one of the reasons why facial recognition poses such a significant threat to privacy,” then noting, “But there are [also] many other reasons.”

He said, “At VPNCompare.co.uk, we spend our time researching and writing about events and technology that help regular people protect their online privacy,” and that “It has become increasingly apparent to us that facial recognition poses one of the most significant threats to individual privacy in recent times. It is also a topic we felt as uninformed about as many of you.”

That last statement seems to be a bit outdated, though, given how widespread both awareness of the use – and acceptance for certain purposes – and opposition to facial recognition has become in recent years.

The guide further states that, “There is an assumption among most people that facial recognition technology is only used in specific, extreme situations, such as during riots or when entering Swiss bank vaults. Unfortunately, it is far more prevalent than you might think and used for all manner of mundane, everyday purposes. As one facial recognition expert said to us, ‘facial recognition is now affordable and accessible enough to be used for just about anything.’”

But in September 2019, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in which it found “a majority of [adult] Americans (56 percent) trust law enforcement agencies to use these technologies responsibly,” and that “a similar share of the public (59 percent) says it is acceptable for law enforcement to use facial recognition tools to assess security threats in public spaces.”

“Less, [however, are] accepting of facial recognition technology when used by advertisers or technology companies,” the survey found.

That number would indicate that – in the U.S., anyway – there’s widespread cognizance and acceptance by over half of the nation’s adults of the employment of facial recognition.

Indeed. The Pew survey – which was representative of the U.S., surveying 4,272 U.S. adults between June 3-17, 2019 – stated that “most Americans have heard about facial recognition technology, with one-quarter having heard a lot about it.”

Continuing, Pew pointed out that, “The American public [actually] has a broad awareness of automated facial recognition technologies that can identify someone based on a picture or video that includes their face. Most Americans – 86 percent in total – have heard at least something about facial recognition technology, with 25 percent saying they have heard a lot about these systems. Just 13 percent of the public has not heard anything about facial recognition.”

The Pew survey continued, “Awareness of these systems is relatively widespread across a range of demographic groups, though there is modest variation in awareness based on factors such as educational attainment. Fully 95 percent of Americans with a college degree or higher have heard at least something about facial recognition technology, with 28 percent of college graduates saying they have heard a lot about it.”

“Overall awareness fell to 79 percent (with 19 percent saying they have heard a lot),” only among the surveyed adult Americans “with a high school diploma or less. Awareness is also slightly higher among those with higher household incomes compared with those with lower incomes; among men relative to women; and among whites relative to blacks and Hispanics.”

Similarly, about the same time Pew was conducting its survey, the Ada Lovelace Institute issued a report, Beyond Face Value: Public Attitudes To Facial Recognition Technology, that summarized the “main messages from a study of public attitudes to the use of facial recognition technology in the U.K.

Among the report’s key conclusions was, “Awareness of facial recognition technology is high, but knowledge about it is low, [but only] particularly with respect to the limitations of the technology.” Furthermore, the study found that while “people fear the normalization of surveillance .. the majority support facial recognition technology when there is a demonstrable public benefit, and there are appropriate safeguards in place, warranting greater investment in testing and articulating the potential public benefits of such technologies.”

These findings – both in the U.S. and the U.K. – would seem to indicate there is a significant contradiction to VPN Compare’ claims.

The company, though, maintains there is a lack of awareness of how widespread the use of facial recognition is, and that necessitated “decided[ing] to put that right and [undertake] an extensive research project to get to the bottom of what facial recognition technology is, how it is being used, and the threat it poses to our privacy. The result is this mammoth guide, which is one of the most comprehensive and accessible guides to facial recognition you will find.”

Meanwhile, Coinspeaker also came out with its “Ultimate Guide to Facial Recognition.” While it covers many of the same issues as VPN Compare, the Coinspeaker guide also offers what it believes are the best performing facial recognition technologies in 2020, noting that while “the subject of performance in facial recognition technologies is a delicate one, accuracy is [also] important, and so [too] is a trade-off,” explaining that “an error rate of 2 percent can be just as disastrous despite its size.”

One of the internet’s oldest VPN comparison websites, VPN Compare says its guide was prepared because it was needed “to educate the public on the state of facial recognition technology across the world. This extensive research project covers the facial recognition’s development to date, how it is being used by different governments and law authorities, the ethics of mass surveillance, and the latest solutions.”

“This is one of our largest research projects to date. This guide explores what facial recognition is, the scale at which it is already being used around the world, and the threat it poses to individual privacy. The more we delved into the topic, the clearer the risks became and the more staggering the lack of safeguards and oversight out there,” Spencer said.

Spencer insists that “facial recognition and ethics is a topic that’s becoming prevalent, yet public awareness is still relatively low. This is concerning considering the privacy issues it raises. We wanted to provide a comprehensive guide that brought together all the information available on this constantly evolving technology to inform the public of the latest applications and laws.”

According to the company, “Facial recognition currently has many applications, from positive use cases such as tracking missing people, more relevant advertising and better law enforcement; however, accuracy remains extremely poor, and consent is a major concern. The U.K.’s police trials of facial recognition technology achieved a 96 percent rate of false positives is one example.”

The 96 percent figure comes from 2016-2018 trials, before the algorithm used by police was updated. The age of the figures and algorithm change are not mentioned, and are even implied not to exist by the word “remains,” undermining the suggestion that the guide is encouraging greater public awareness. The stat also refers to false matches out of total matches rather than out of total attempts, which is the standard way biometric accuracy is expressed, so is arguably misleading.

Privacy, data security, discrimination, safeguarding, accuracy, A.I. ethics, deepfakes, and the risk of state abuse are some of the trends covered in the new guide, which is divided into four main research topic areas: “All about Facial recognition;” “Facial Recognition – Pros and Cons;” “Facial Recognition – What can you do about it?;” and “Facial Recognition – The Future.”

“Most people are unfamiliar with facial recognition technology, how it is used, and how it affects” them,” the company said, noting that “This lack of knowledge is one of the reasons why facial recognition poses such a significant threat to privacy.”

“But there are many other reasons,” the company added. Explaining why the technology is such a dramatic threat to privacy motivated the “extensive research project to get to the bottom of what facial recognition technology is, how it is being used, and the threat it poses to our privacy.”

While spending a great deal of time covering a multitude of privacy and civil rights, and other related issues – like its use for repression in China – it also notes the technology’s importance in matters like finding missing people.

“When someone goes missing, the pain felt by those loved ones left behind, who don’t know what has happened to them is indescribable. There is no denying that facial recognition offers a way to track down missing people,” the guide acknowledges, pointing out that, “When a person goes missing of their own volition, they will invariably head to an urban area where it is easier to be anonymous. But it is in busy cities where facial recognition technology is being deployed.”

So, “If a CCTV system with facial recognition technology working on it has details of a missing person and spots a likely match in a crowded street, it can automatically alert authorities, and even if that person cannot be tracked down, their families can have the comfort of knowing that at least they are alive,” the guide says, emphasizing that “the effectiveness of this system can be best illustrated by the example of searching for missing children in India … In New Delhi, almost 3,000 missing children were identified in less than four days. There is no denying this is a hugely impressive statistic.”

The guide also highlights the importance of facial recognition for increased security in vulnerable places, pre-emptively catching criminals, faster security checks, and industrial and economic benefits.

The company’s guide also places obvious concerns on what it sees as a lack of sufficient safeguards on the expanding use of facial technology “because [this] technology has rather crept up on us [and] has managed to manifest itself in many different aspects of people’s lives without sufficient safeguards being put in place to protect people’s privacy and deter law enforcement officers from abusing its use.”

In most countries, the report said it found, “surveillance technology … is only able to be used if the police secure a warrant or some kind of independent judicial approval,” but that it could apparently not find “any countries where there is such a requirement in place for facial recognition to be used. Then there is the sensitive issue of what happens to images and other data captured by facial recognition cameras.”

“Again, in most countries, there are limits on how long such data can be stored for,” the guide says, but cautioned that “while some law enforcement agencies state that the data is only retained for a few hours or days, such a move is usually voluntary and there is little regulation to prevent them keeping such images for longer.”

“In the U.K.,” for example, the report cited, “the Home Office recently confirmed in an evidence session with the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that images collected and watch lists for specific events are subsequently deleted unless there is a match,” adding that “the European Union has recently suggested it plans to introduce ‘strict new regulation’ to combat the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology across the block.”

“But these regulations will potentially take years to come into force, and there is currently little evidence of other countries following their lead, despite some calls for a proper legal framework to be introduced … in the U.K.,” the report concluded, “Although new reports suggest that the E.U. is also planning on harnessing the power of facial recognition creating a ‘pan-European network of facial recognition databases.’”

The “guide” discusses the “pros” of facial recognition technology, but spends most of its space on the “cons.” With regard to security and policing, it states, “Facial recognition only works by having data available on everyone. If it is going to provide matches, it needs to have access to databases with as many images of people as possible,” and “often these images are taken without a person’s knowledge.”

It also rehashes the much debated issues of the technologies inherent racial discrimination and inaccurate results, both of which are old issues which, while some facial recognition technology may still have some of these bugs, there also have been fast-tracked solutions.

All in all, the guide seems to be more or less written for someone who has never heard of or been exposed to this technology.

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