There are serious concerns regarding privacy, accuracy, and misuse of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies. China is an early adopter of the technology and uses AI, and facial recognition extensively to monitor its citizens. The country has been criticized and vilified for its Big Brother tendencies by the international community. Hence, it may come as a surprise that China is not the only country that utilizes facial recognition for law enforcement. Many countries worldwide, including the US, countries in the EU, Japan, etc use facial recognition tools to support law enforcement and aid in criminal investigations. In this article, we examine which countries utilize the technology and how it's being deployed.
Countries using facial recognition for law enforcement
1. The United States
The United States has been one of the harshest critics of China's use of AI and facial recognition to detain citizens before they have committed a crime or to quash protests before they can gain momentum. In an ironic twist, U.S law enforcement agencies used facial recognition tools to identify protestors after the killing of George Floyd and to recognize suspects after the January 6th insurrection on the U.S capitol building. Though the U.S does not use facial recognition as broadly and extensively as China, there are still major red flags about the unregulated use of the technology by law enforcement agencies.
According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 42 U.S. agencies have deployed facial recognition technology. Of these, 10 agencies were using solutions provided by the controversial company Clearview A.I. A concern raised in the report is that some agencies did not have a clear understanding of the technology they had deployed. They also did not have any mechanisms in place to track how the solutions were being used.
The Japanese National Police Agency has been using facial recognition technology for criminal investigations since March of this year. Unlike the United States, the use of facial images is regulated in Japan. The police must follow strict rules outlined by the National Public Safety Commission for the use of facial images. The police force only uses facial recognition for criminal investigations. The Japanese system is able to compare images in their database with images from surveillance cameras and social media. The police force currently has 10 million images in its database of criminal suspects. Some of these suspects have not yet been arrested. Despite the regulations, there has been some concern. Critics are worried that the system could eventually evolve and turn Japan into a surveillance society. There have been calls for more strict rules for the use of this technology.
Sweden's Data Protection Authority (DPA) permitted the use of facial recognition technology by the police to identify criminal suspects. The permission was given as facial recognition is far more effective at identifying suspects than manual identification by the police. The DPA did not provide any rules when giving permission. It did however mention that the police should decide how long data would be stored before deploying the technology. It also mentioned that data should only be kept for as long as necessary for the police to complete its task. In February of this year, the DPA found that the police had breached the Swedish Criminal Data act by using Clearview A.I. for facial recognition. The Swedish Authority for Privacy Protection (IMY) found that the police had unlawfully processed data when using Clearview A.I. The IMY fined the Swedish Police SEK 2,500,000. The police were ordered to inform the individuals whose data was disclosed to Clearview A.I. The police were also ordered to conduct more training and education for the technology so that officers know how to use the solution properly. If possible the police must also try and ease any data that was improperly shared with Clearview A.I.
Italy has developed a system for real-time facial recognition called SARI (System for Automatic Recognition for Images). The Italian police started testing the system in July 2018 and tested it for months. SARI utilizes a database of 16 million mugshots. 9 million of these are people the police have identified only once and 7 million are people that have been stopped repeatedly. The system is also capable of recognizing faces from CCTV footage of real-time events. There are several concerns related to SARI. One of these is the size of the database itself. Italy has an adult population of 50 million. Not including teenagers, a database of 16 million mugshots means that one in three Italian adults is in the system. Concerns have been raised about how broad this database is.
Recently, Italy's data protection authority, Garante declared the SARI real-time facial recognition system unlawful. Citing privacy concerns, Garante said in a report that the system would establish an "indiscriminate mass surveillance system". Garante has ordered the Italian Interior Ministry to review the system keeping citizen's rights in mind and provide adequate regulations. Garante's report specified that the regulations should specify when such a system can be used and on what basis can suspects be added to the police watch list.
Australia's facial recognition system is ominously called Capability. The system is 'capable' of quickly matching images of people captured on CCTV cameras with driver's license, passport, and visa images on record. Authorities can run the system without citizen's consent. Currently, there is no regulation on the use of the Capability or other facial recognition technology (FRT) that has been deployed across Australia. In many parts of the world, FRT has been used to target human and civil rights activists. The potential for abuse has prompted some organizations to call for a total ban on the use, development, production, and sale of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance.
The criticism China receives for its heavy-handed use of FRT is well deserved in some areas. The Chinese government has used the technology to identify and apprehend people who are opposed to the current government, to target protestors, and police minorities like Uighur Muslims. But the current narrative makes it seem like this is a China-specific issue when in reality real-time surveillance via facial images is being used everywhere. Like any tool facial recognition can be used well or abused. Its use to unlock phones, help people tag friends in photos can be helpful, but when the same technology is used to quash protests, stamp out dissent, or targets minorities due to built-in racial bias, we need to ask questions. It is clear that the technology is not going anywhere, regulations must be put in place to ensure it is not abused.
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