Several countries and states have already restricted the use of facial recognition technology, citing that it violates privacy.
With the Novel Coronavirus infection, aka, COVID-19
wreaking havoc around the world, many things that we have taken for granted have come under question. The security industry plays an essential role as the outbreak continues, and the safety of people becomes paramount. But despite this, some physical security solutions have created more panic among people.
One such issue came to light when a Reuters report
said that Megvii, a Chinese company that develops facial recognition solutions, was working on “accuracy of identifying masked individuals in crowds.” This report created much fear among the Chinese people who took to social media to react.
The public outcry led to Megvii offering a clarification on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat that it does not verify people’s identities, but merely uses the technology to identify a person’s forehead to check temperature levels using infrared scanners.
But this has not stopped other companies from openly revealing their solutions can verify people in masks. A separate Reuters report
said that Hanwang Technology, also known as Hanvon, “has come up with technology that can successfully recognize people even when they are wearing masks.” Another Chinese company, Jieshun. has made similar claims
Why the fear?
Although clarification from the Megvii and the bigger problem of viral outbreak put an end to media speculation, the whole incident brings the debate on the use of facial recognition back on the table.
Several countries and states in the world have already restricted the use of facial recognition technology, citing that it violates privacy. But in many countries where individual privacy is not given such importance, governments have been pushing for increased surveillance using AI-driven biometrics.
The particular issue of Megvii is significant because masks had played a major role recently, before COVID-19 came up. Last year during a protest, masks were a common accessory. But there was much fear that authorities may use facial recognition systems to target specific individuals. Masks helped the protesters to partially hide their faces in a socially accepted manner, without making it look conspicuous like a hoodie.
Justifying mask-beating AI
Authorities anywhere can justify the use of AI to recognize mask-wearing people at this stage because of its widespread use. But what after that? Will there be no way to protect your identity and privacy?
Interestingly, the report on Hanwang’s solution was published on March 9, while the Megvii story was online on February 10, when the virus issue was still in its early stages. Usually, netizens are quick to complain about increased intrusion to privacy. Yet, they have not made any major protest against Hanwang’s news, seeing it as a necessity during the health crisis.
But this matter would definitely come up for discussion again once this pandemic pass. We will have to wait and see if more governments reconsider their decision on facial recognition or other more intrusive surveillance systems. Privacy activists and citizens will naturally have a lot of concerns about this and would like their voices heard. But now is probably not the time for it.