We’ve all heard stories of China’s technological advancements and how face recognition is really gaining a lot of traction. If you needed any proof of China’s technological might over most countries of the world, it doesn’t get any better (or scarier) than this.
On Sunday, tech analyst at Tencent & WeChat, Matthew Brennan, tweeted a video of a facial recognition kiosk at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in the People’s Republic of China. The kiosk seemed to give Brennan minutely personalized flight information as he walked by after automatically scanning his face in just seconds.
A simple 22 second video crossed over 1.2 million views in just over a day. The tweet went viral, with many commenters writing how dystopian or terrifying they found this technology. Suggesting how wary we should be of the proliferation of biometric systems like those used in China.
Wow! China Airport face recognition systems to help you check your flight status and find the way to your gate. Note I did not input anything, it accurately identified my full flight information from my face! pic.twitter.com/5ASdrwA7wj
— Matthew Brennan (@mbrennanchina) March 24, 2019
“There’s one guarantee that I’ll never get to go to China now,” one Twitter user wrote in response. “That’s called fascism and it’s not moral or ok,” another comment read.
That’s called fascism and it’s not moral or ok.
China literally kills pro-democracy activists.
— Tequila Mockingbird (@delruky) March 24, 2019
Surveillance tech isn’t a new idea
The airport facial recognition technology isn’t new in China, and similar systems are already being implemented at airports in the United States.
In October, Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport reportedly debuted China’s first system that allowed facial recognition for automated check-in, security clearance, and boarding. And since 2016, the Department of Homeland Security has been testing facial recognition at U.S. airports. This biometric exit program uses photos taken at TSA checkpoints to perform facial recognition tests to verify international travelers’ identities. Documents recently obtained by Buzzfeed show that Homeland Security is now racing to implement this system at the top 20 airports in the U.S. by 2021.
And it isn’t just the federal government that has been rolling out facial recognition at American airports. In May of 2017, Delta announced it was testing a face-scanning system at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport that allowed customers to check in their bags, or, as the company called it in a press release, “biometric-based bag drop.”
The airline followed up those tests with what it celebrated as “the first biometric terminal” in the U.S. at Atlanta’s Maynard H. Jackson International Airport at the end of last year. Calling it an “end-to-end Delta Biometrics experience,” Delta’s system uses facial recognition kiosks for check-in, baggage check, TSA identification, and boarding. The facial recognition option is saving an average of two seconds for each customer at boarding, or nine minutes when boarding a wide body aircraft.
“Delta’s successful launch of the first biometric terminal in the U.S. at the world’s busiest airport means we are designing the airport biometric experience blueprint for the industry,” said Gil West, Delta’s COO. “We’re removing the need for a customer checking a bag to present their passport up to four times per departure – which means we’re giving customers the option of moving through the airport with one less thing to worry about, while empowering our employees with more time for meaningful interactions with customers.”
Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 will soon replace its security-clearance counter with a walkway tunnel filled with 80 face-scanning cameras disguised as a distracting immersive video.
The airport has an artsy, colorful video security and customs tunnel that scans your face, adds you to a database, indexes you with artificial intelligence and decides if you’re free to leave — or not.
Potential dangers surveillance tech could bring in
From first glance, the kiosk does seem really cool. But it should also serve as a warning as to what governments and companies can do with our data if left unchecked. After all, if an airport kiosk can identify Brennan in seconds and show him his travel plans, the Chinese government can clearly use facial recognition tech to identify citizens wherever they go. The government may record everyone’s face and could automatically fine/punish someone if they do break/bend the rules.
Matter of fact, they are already doing this via their social credit system. If you are officially designated as a “discredited individual,” or laolai in Mandarin, you are banned from spending on “luxuries,” whose definition includes air travel and fast trains.
This class of people, most of whom have shirked their debts, sit on a public database maintained by China’s Supreme Court. For them, daily life is a series of inflicted indignities – some big, some small – from not being able to rent a home in their own name, to being shunned by relatives and business associates.
Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon, already has control over the traffic lights in one Chinese city, Hangzhou. Alibaba is far from shy about it’s ambitions. It has 120,000 developers working on the problem and intends to commercialise and sell the data it gathers about citizens.
Surveillance technology is pervasive in our society, leading to fierce debate between proponents and opponents. Government surveillance, in particular, has been brought increasingly under public scrutiny, with proponents arguing that it increases security, and opponents decrying its invasion of privacy. Critics have loudly accused governments of employing surveillance technologies that sweep up massive amounts of information, intruding on the privacy of millions, but with little to no evidence of success. And yet, evaluating whether surveillance technology increases security is a difficult task.
From the War Resisters League to the Government Accountability Project, Data for Black Lives and 18 Million Rising, from Families Belong Together to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, more than 85 groups signed letters to corporate giants Microsoft, Amazon and Google, demanding that the companies commit not to sell face surveillance technology to the government.
Shoshana Zuboff, writer of the book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism mentions that the technology companies insist their technology is too complex to be legislated, there are companies that have poured billions into lobbying against oversight, and while building empires on publicly funded data and the details of our private lives. They have repeatedly rejected established norms of societal responsibility and accountability.
Causes more harm to the Minority groups and vulnerable communities
There has been a long history of use of surveillance technologies that will particularly impact vulnerable communities and groups such as immigrants, communities of color, religious minorities, even domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Privacy is not only a luxury that many residents cannot afford. In surveillance-heavy precincts, for practical purposes, privacy cannot be bought at any price.
Privacy advocates have sometimes struggled to demonstrate the harms of government surveillance to the general public. Part of the challenge is empirical. Federal, state, and local governments shield their high-technology operations with stealth, obfuscation, and sometimes outright lies when obliged to answer questions. In many cases, perhaps most, these defenses defeat attempts to extract a full, concrete accounting of what the government knows about us, and how it puts that information to use. There is a lot less mystery for the poor and disfavored, for whom surveillance takes palpable, often frightening forms.
The question is, as many commenters pointed out after Brennan’s tweet, do we want this kind of technology available? If so, how could it be kept in check and not abused by governments and other institutions? That’s something we don’t have an answer for yet–an answer we desperately need.