As facial recognition use grows, so do privacy fears

Above, a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference in November 2017, which showcases artificial intelligence, deep learning, virtual reality and autonomous machines. (AFP)
Updated 08 July 2018
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As facial recognition use grows, so do privacy fears

  • Facial recognition is playing an increasing role in law enforcement, border security and other purposes in the US and around the world
  • While more accurate facial recognition is generally welcomed, civil liberties groups say specific policy safeguards should be in place

WASHINGTON: The unique features of your face can allow you to unlock your new iPhone, access your bank account or even “smile to pay” for some goods and services.
The same technology, using algorithms generated by a facial scan, can allow law enforcement to find a wanted person in a crowd or match the image of someone in police custody to a database of known offenders.
Facial recognition came into play last month when a suspect arrested for a shooting at a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, refused to cooperate with police and could not immediately be identified using fingerprints.
“We would have been much longer in identifying him and being able to push forward in the investigation without that system,” said Anne Arundel County police chief Timothy Altomare.
Facial recognition is playing an increasing role in law enforcement, border security and other purposes in the US and around the world.
While most observers acknowledge the merits of some uses of this biometric identification, the technology evokes fears of a “Big Brother” surveillance state.
Heightening those concerns are studies showing facial recognition may not always be accurate, especially for people of color.
A 2016 Georgetown University study found that one in two American adults, or 117 million people, are in facial recognition databases with few rules on how these systems may be accessed.
A growing fear for civil liberties activists is that law enforcement will deploy facial recognition in “real time” through drones, body cameras and dash cams.
“The real concern is police on patrol identifying law-abiding Americans at will with body cameras,” said Matthew Feeney, specialist in emerging technologies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
“This technology is of course improving but it’s not as accurate as science fiction films would make you think.”
China is at the forefront of facial recognition, using the technology to fine traffic violators and “shame” jaywalkers, with at least one arrest of a criminal suspect.
Clare Garvie, lead author of the 2016 Georgetown study, said that in the past two years, “facial recognition has been deployed in a more widespread and aggressive manner” in the US, including for border security and at least one international airport.
News that Amazon had begun deploying its Rekognition software to police departments sparked a wave of protests from employees and activists calling on the tech giant to stay away from law enforcement applications.
Amazon is one of dozens of tech firms involved in facial recognition. Microsoft for example uses facial recognition for US border security, and the US state of Maryland uses technology from German-based Cognitec and Japanese tech firm NEC.
Amazon maintains that it does not conduct surveillance or provide any data to law enforcement, but simply enables them to match images to those in its databases.
The tech giant also claims its facial recognition system can help reunite lost or abducted children with their families and stem human trafficking.
Nonetheless, some say facial recognition should not be deployed by law enforcement because of the potential for errors and abuse.
That was an argument made by Brian Brackeen, founder and the chief executive officer of the facial recognition software developer Kairos.
“As the black chief executive of a software company developing facial recognition services, I have a personal connection to the technology, both culturally and socially,” Brackeen said in a blog post on TechCrunch.
“Facial recognition-powered government surveillance is an extraordinary invasion of the privacy of all citizens — and a slippery slope to losing control of our identities altogether.”
The Georgetown study found facial recognition algorithms were five to 10 percent less accurate on African Americans than Caucasians.
Microsoft announced last month it had made significant improvements for facial recognition “across skin tones” and genders.
IBM meanwhile said it was launching a large-scale study “to improve the understanding of bias in facial analysis.”
While more accurate facial recognition is generally welcomed, civil liberties groups say specific policy safeguards should be in place.
In 2015, several consumer groups dropped out of a government-private initiative to develop standards for facial recognition use, claiming the process was unlikely to develop sufficient privacy protections.
Cato’s Feeney said a meaningful move would be to “purge these databases of anyone who isn’t currently incarcerated or wanted for violent crime.”
Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the implications for police surveillance are significant.
“An inaccurate system will implicate people for crimes they did not commit. And it will shift the burden onto defendants to show they are not who the system says they are,” Lynch said in a report earlier this year.
Lynch said there are unique risks of breach or misuse of this data, because “we can’t change our faces.”
Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says facial recognition is too dangerous for law enforcement.
“It’s an ideal tool for oppressive surveillance,” Selinger said in a blog post.
“It poses such a severe threat in the hands of law enforcement that the problem cannot be contained by imposing procedural safeguards.”


Battle lines drawn as EU court weighs fate of gene-edited crops

Updated 20 July 2018
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Battle lines drawn as EU court weighs fate of gene-edited crops

  • The European Union has long restricted the use of genetically modified organisms widely adopted around the world
  • The first wave of gene-edited crops may involve removing harmful elements from food
LONDON: Gene editing in agriculture takes center stage next Wednesday when Europe’s highest court rules in a case that could determine the fate of the technology that is already making waves in the field of medicine.
The European Union has long restricted the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) widely adopted around the world, but there is legal uncertainty as to whether modern gene editing of crops should fall under the same strict GMO rules.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will rule whether the use of genetic mutation, or mutagenesis, which is now exempt from GMO rules, should differentiate between techniques that have been used for decades and the new gene-editing technology.
The biotech industry argues that much of gene editing is effectively little different to the mutagenesis that occurs naturally or is induced by radiation — a standard plant breeding method since the 1950s.
But environmentalists, anti-GM groups and farmers concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts of all genetically engineered products fear that allowing gene editing would usher in a new era of “GMO 2.0” via the backdoor.
Gene editing with the CRISPR/Cas9 tool and other techniques has the potential to make hardier and more nutritious crops — as well as offering drug companies new ways to fight human disease.
US biotech firm Calyxt, for example, has gene edited soybeans to produce healthier oil with no trans fats and it is growing 17,000 acres of its new design across the US Midwest this year.
Big agrochemical specialists such as Germany’s Bayer and US firm DowDuPont are also stepping up investment in the technology.
The case before the ECJ was brought by a group of French agricultural associations that want the existing EU exemption for plant varieties obtained via mutagenesis to be restricted to long-standing conventional techniques.
While older GMO technology typically adds new DNA to a crop or animal, gene editing can cause a mutation by changing a few pieces of DNA code. It works with great speed and precision, like the find-and-replace function on a word processor.
“Anything you can do by standard mutagenesis you can do 10 or maybe 50 times quicker,” said Johnathan Napier, who is leading a trial at Rothamsted Research which has involved the sowing of the first gene-edited crops in Britain.
He said the first wave of gene-edited crops may involve removing harmful elements from food, such as developing peanuts without peanut allergens or castor bean oil without ricin toxin.
But critics say the technology is not yet proven safe — an argument that may have gained weight this week after research suggested gene editing can cause risky collateral DNA damage.
So far, the signs are that the court may lean toward the biotech industry’s view. ECJ advocate general Michal Bobek advised in January that organisms could be exempt from GMO rules if they did not have added foreign DNA.
The advocate general’s view is not binding but is usually followed by ECJ judges.
John Brennan, secretary general of the biotech industry group EuropaBio, believes gene-edited crops will bring consumer and environmental benefits, as well as keeping Europe at the forefront of a technology important for jobs and growth.
“A clearer regulatory status is essential for communicating and understanding the opportunities that these tools and products present,” he said.
The first wave of gene-edited crops involves removing potentially harmful elements, such as the allergens in peanuts or ricin toxin in castor bean oil, said Napier at Rothmsted.
Environmental groups see things very differently.
“We’re talking about genetic engineering and that should be regulated under GMO law,” said Franziska Achterberg of Greenpeace.
Friends of the Earth, which helped bring the original case in France, contends that failure to regulate gene editing could cause permanent damage to Europe’s food sector.
Some retail groups that have been working to produce and market non-GMO food have also expressed concern.
Currently, strict rules mean only one GM crop, a variety of maize, is grown in Europe and while the EU allows the import of others they are exclusively used as animal feed.