Banning facial recognition knee jerk reaction

Many of the crime dramas you see on prime time television these days utilize facial recognition technology, where some tech pushes a button on the keyboard, and suddenly a million faces a second start flashing on a computer monitor until the match is found. Then the investigators bag the bad guy, and society is saved.

However, it’s a good thing none of those crime dramas are based in San Francisco. Otherwise, the series would either end abruptly or have a “very special episode” where the crimefighters learn a valuable lesson about facial recognition.

The California city is poised to ban facial recognition technology use by city or police officals, according to a NPR report that came out this week. The motive behind the madness is that facial recognition is unreliable when it comes to full accuracy. A study came out this year indicating mistakes were more likely when it came to matching the faces of women or anyone with darker skin.

Facial recognition systems are able to identify or verify a person from a digital image or a video frame. The software compares selected facial features from faces compiled within a database. Those images could be from when you enter a courthouse, a convenience store, even another person’s home.

It certainly sounds creepy on the surface, especially when you consider that NPR reported that Georgetown University researchers believe there’s more than a 50 percent chance that your image is already in a law enforcement database.

I can understand the concerns about Big Brother watching us, but an outright ban seems extreme. There have been some positive uses of facial recognition, like locating missing children or preventing driver license fraud. Then again, if the technology is making more errors than collecting correct identifications, then it’s clear some work needs to be done.

Here are some statistics from MIT Media Lab to ponder. Accuracy rate to identify men using facial recognition was 91.9%, while accuracy for women was 79.4%. That’s certainly a wide enough margin to give experts pause, but the margin’s even wider when you consider that the error rate for women of color is 23.8% to 36%. Using an imperfect biometric would seem foolhardy on the surface, but that just indicates fine-tuning is needed. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

San Francisco would seem intent on turning back the clock rather than pushing the pause button. I would question why such a stance would be taken. You don’t give up on a building project because the hammer you’re using doesn’t work; you find another hammer and try again.

Not so long ago, police agencies were dependent on the slim hope that someone in the public might see a missing child or a shifty-looking bank robber and call them to report the sighting. As we well know, some people are willing to turn a blind eye when they see something bad happening, and in this age of “post to YouTube now, ask questions later,” people are more willing to share crime with the world than with the authorities. That’s what makes it necessary for the police to turn to tools like this.

Still, when the technology is not reliable, you shouldn’t let it be the defining factor in solving a crime. I haven’t heard of cases being prosecuted solely on facial recognition software identifying a suspect. You usually have to have a lot more in the state’s bag of tricks in order to get the case through court. Relying only on facial recognition would be like depending on Aunt Ida to prepare Thanksgiving dinner even though she’s been known to ruin cold cereal.

San Francisco is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to banning facial recognition. Oakland, California, is also examining whether or not to implement a “you’re not welcome here” sign for the software, according to NPR. The state of Massachusetts is looking at a moratorium, not a ban, on facial recognition software until the batting average more resembles Ty Cobb and not Charlie Brown.

San Francisco should reverse its decision and consider a moratorium instead. Most technology has something bigger and better waiting in the wings, and that will probably be the case with facial recognition. I can understand how, with today’s attitude of tossing broken things instead of getting them fixed, the city might feel it’s best to issue a ban, but unless officials can prove there has been malevolent use of the technology, a moratorium makes more sense.

To implement the ban is to declare an impediment to progress. If bureaucrats are going to tie law enforcement’s hands when it comes to facial recognition, they might as well forbid DNA testing and burn all the fingerprint records — and they should be prepared to tell grieving parents why they have had no success in finding their missing or children.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for the Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com