The March 8 front-page article “FBI, DOD immersed in facial recognition research” highlighted the paradoxical reality of facial recognition research. Although many governments, major corporations and leading technology policy organizations have publicly urged the suspension of such technologies, at least until their potential to cause harm can be better understood and regulated, facial recognition systems proliferate. There is a disconnect between publicly stated concerns about facial recognition and the continued allocation of research dollars to refine the technology.
There could be many reasons for these crosscurrents. Governments might recognize that facial recognition could aid public safety — an important societal need. Corporations might not want to sit on the sidelines and allow their competitors to gain advantage in bringing an exciting new technology to the marketplace. Across all sectors, the perception might be that any harms caused by facial recognition are an inconvenience that can be lived with. That’s dangerous and unwise.
A 2020 statement from the U.S. Technology Policy Committee (USTPC) of the Association for Computing Machinery emphasized that flaws in these systems frequently can and do extend to profound injury, particularly to the lives, livelihoods and fundamental rights of individuals in specific demographic groups, including some of the most vulnerable populations in our society.
Accordingly, the USTPC urged an immediate suspension of the current and future private and governmental use of facial recognition technologies in all circumstances known or reasonably foreseeable to be prejudicial to established human and legal rights. The USTPC also outlined a set of guiding principles that should govern the design and deployment of facial recognition systems in the future.
Technology advances at a lightning pace; law and policy move more deliberately. But this doesn’t mean they can’t get in step. In fact, they must.
Jeremy Epstein, Washington
The writer is chair of the Association for Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee.