This week the Metropolitan Police announced the use of automatic face recognition cameras to monitor for specific wanted individuals. We heard a plethora of assurances from the Police about how they would use the technology and concerns from consumer groups about data privacy and human rights.
Frankly, I am disappointed in the quality of the discussion. I think that the relevant conversation should be about (i) the underlying challenges with the usage model proposed and (ii) if and how the proposed deployments will degrade the level of privacy we currently enjoy.
The Police say they will only use the technology to search for people who they need to catch as a priority. They say they will provide signage and leaflets in areas it is being used, so the general public are made aware where the surveillance zones are. Why do they want to advise the criminal where he or she is most likely to be apprehended?
The Police currently use undercover officers, effectively undertaking covert surveillance. Isn’t this the same as face recognition does? To my mind the key issue is whether the police will apprehend someone, just because they are flagged by the face recognition, or if they will use it as a tool to bring specific people to an officer’s attention.
Turning to the privacy debate: if you use a mobile phone, with location service enabled, your movements are tracked anyway. Even just having a mobile phone means there is information about the areas you have visited and when. Face recognition is used to unlock our mobile phones, enable us to board aeroplanes and identify when we appear in pictures on social media. Does the use of face recognition by the police further compromise our privacy?
I advocate open debate about the ethical use of AI. These technologies can address some of the major productivity challenges we have in society, but we will only derive these benefits if there is consent to their use.
The consequence of uninformed debate is knee jerk reactions. The EU is considering a three to five-year moratorium on the use of face recognition in public areas; I can’t help but feel this is an over-reaction. Who wouldn’t want the police to use face recognition if it improved the chances of finding a missing child?
I have written this article to stimulate a debate about how we can all engage in the ethical debate, not just for face recognition, but for AI.
AI will continue to transform the way we live and work. I think we all need to better understand what this means to us as individuals as well as society. Better informed and open debate about the ethical usage of the technology, will educate us and help drive consensual adoption.