Skip to main content

Facial Recognition; A Real Privacy Scare Or Mainly Mania?

image: Electronic Frontier Foundation on Flickr, under CC BY 2.0 license. 

SenseTime, Megvii, Yitu, AnyVision, Clearview, Paravision (formerly Ever AI), Trueface. Do these aforementioned names sound familiar to you? if so, then you're likely conversant with the development and growing adoption of facial recognition technology around the globe as they're all tech firms offering facial recognition software to different types of customers, be it law enforcement, retailers, colleges, real estate firms, private investigators and so on.

The growing adoption of facial recognition technology has however not been without consternation. There are worries, profound ones indeed, concerning misuse or abuse of such tech especially in the wrong hands and privacy intrusions emanating from its use on uninformed, unsuspecting individuals. Take, for instance, Clearview AI. If you're familiar with facial recognition startups, you should know Clearview, a secretive startup whose secrecy happened to have been fragmented by a recent investigation by The New York Times that shed light on its facial recognition software, which is able to identify persons by matching their photos with a database containing billions of photos scraped from the public web, photos scraped without proper permission in several cases.

Although there are other companies offering similar solutions, Clearview's stirred much attention given reports of near-perfect accuracies in identifying persons and uncertainty around its client base. While Clearview earlier said its software was "strictly for law enforcement", an ensuing report from BuzzFeed News which happened to have obtained its client list revealed other users ranging from retailers such as Kohl’s and Walmart to banks like Wells Fargo, entertainment companies, fitness chains such as Equinox and even the NBA. A recent report from The New York Times revealed that select individuals also had access to Clearview's software over a year before the company became the subject of public scrutiny.

However, the majority of Clearview's clients happened to have used its facial recognition software on free trials and not as paying customers, BuzzFeed News' report noted.

Now, facial recognition use by law enforcement may not resonate well with lots of persons but could be understandable. Individuals and private corporations on the other hand? not so well. Firstly, there's the issue of privacy. Why run searches on uninformed individuals, and even in a case where they're informed, for what precise reason?. Even when precise reasons are provided, technology, as we know, is susceptible to flaws and bugs. Would a wrong facial match lead to unfavorable consequences for an individual?. There's also the issue of bias which a recent study from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology shed light on, in its case facial recognition algorithms falsely identifying African-American and Asian faces at higher rates than Caucasian faces.

Clearview has hit some barriers since the investigation from The New York Times was published. Facebook, Google, and Twitter, three tech giants whose platform likely accounts for a great deal of its database of scraped photos, have sent the company cease and desist letters demanding it stops scraping photos from their platforms. The state of New Jersey barred the use of Clearview's software by its police officers. Apple blocked its iPhone app after finding it to be in violation of its rules.

It's also worth noting that Clearview's CEO, Hoan Ton-That, is known to have been the mastermind behind ViddyHo, a website that hijacked users' Gmail accounts after requesting log-in information under false pretense and sent out chat messages that spread itself further, what is otherwise known as 'phishing'. After affecting lots of persons, it was later shut down. This seems like Ton-That after having invaded users' privacy in a previous case is now asking law enforcement agencies to trust him with a very crucial tool.

Clearview isn't the only facial recognition company out there, so we'll digress. There's also AnyVision, an Israeli-based startup that Microsoft, one of its investors, had to investigate after reports of the company's facial recognition software being adopted for a secret surveillance project by the Israeli military that monitored Palestinians in the West Bank, a landlocked territory that has been a salient element in the long-running Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Microsoft sought the services of Eric Holder, a former Attorney General of the U.S., to conduct the investigation.

Eric Holder, who served as the 82nd Attorney General of the U.S. from 2009 to 2015, was billed to conduct an investigation into AnyVision alongside a team of lawyers.

image: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Flickr, under CC BY 2.0 license 

Likewise, SenseTime and Megvii, two private Chinese companies valued in the billions by its investors, have stirred controversy over its sale of facial recognition software to agencies associated with the Chinese government. Both companies were among 28 firms recently blacklisted by the U.S. government for "acting contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States". Megvii's blacklist may have been the major reason it postponed an imminent IPO after already filing to go public. U.S.-based investment bank Goldman Sachs, which was to play a role in Megvii's IPO, said it was reviewing its relationship with the company after the blacklist.

Relatively smaller companies like Clearview, AnyVision, SenseTime and Megvii aren't the only ones selling facial recognition software. Tech giant Amazon also markets its own facial recognition software and drew objections both from investors and employees over its use by U.S. government agencies.

In summary, the adoption of facial recognition technology seems to be growing globally, alongside advancements in the area. While facial recognition software has existed for quite a long time, those currently in use are more advanced and more accurate, although not perfect, when compared to previous ones thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.

The growing use of such software then poses several risks, some of which are aforementioned. Save for privacy intrusions, bias, susceptibility to mistakes, misuse and abuse, there are also numerous other potentially risky scenarios. How about sales to governments with poor human rights records? susceptibility to hacking and breaches? use for predatory marketing? identity fraud? facilitation of criminal activity when in the wrong hands? the list seems endless.

Several jurisdictions have recognized the risks of adopting facial recognition tech at a time when there are no precise regulations governing its use and what seems to be a lack of understanding from the general population about its use (not that most are unwilling to learn, we may not even know what is there to know given the lack of clear-cut information from sources meant to provide them).

In October last year, California became the third U.S. state to ban the use of facial recognition. A few other cities and government-associated agencies have also restricted their use. This seems to be a good step.

Now, don't get us wrong, facial recognition is not inherently bad. There are some good cases where it can be applied, for example, fighting gambling addiction, identifying missing persons and even pets, identifying unknown bodies, singling out criminals as regards to investigations, and so on. These are cases where they can prove to be effective for a greater good and seem called for. However, given current situations, the risks don't seem to have been sizeably gauged leaving no choice but to postpone its use till we're at a point where strict laws and codes of conduct are set in place regarding its use.

Now, based on information about current circumstances regarding facial recognition use which are highlighted by afore written paragraphs, we should be able to answer the question as to whether facial recognition poses a real privacy scare or what can be dubbed mainly as mania from the general public under current circumstances, and lo, we feel it's the former, a serious privacy scare.

However, this isn't to incite panic or hysteria, it's just a simple write-up to make more persons aware of the growing adoption of facial recognition tech around us. Ignorance, in this case, can never be bliss as understanding the use of new tools around us is a requisite for existence in the 21st century. You shouldn't just stop here but also read up and garner more information from other reputed sources. This is a societal issue, entailing everyone is involved.

If you're the curious type, you should perhaps also read up on our recent write-up concerning the promise of self-driving cars which seems to have been broken by those who made such promises.


Most Read Posts

Tesla Now World's Most Valuable Carmaker

Electric car maker Tesla has been on a tear as of late, with its share price having shot past $1,100 a pop and given the company status as the world's most valuable automaker. Currently (as of writing), Tesla has a market capitalization hovering around $208 billion, beating the likes of Ford, GM, and Toyota which actually manufacture way more cars and mint much more revenue. Before now, Toyota had been the automaker with the largest public market capitalization. Toyota (as of writing) has a market capitalization hovering around $203 billion, a bit lower than Tesla's.

Investors seem to be drooling for Tesla shares given its valuation despite minting lesser revenue than other traditional automakers. For a quick comparison, Tesla delivered 367,500 vehicles last year while Toyota delivered 10 million, about 27 times Tesla's. Investors seem to have much courage in Tesla's future potential, given it's a company that only debuted on the public markets 10 years ago. The l…

Pharrell Williams Eyes Venture Investing

It seems celebrities across the U.S. have heard of good fortunes being reaped in the world of venture investing and are out to get their own share. Many music, movies, and sports bigwigs, including the likes of Kevin Durant, Lebron James, The Chainsmokers, Snoop Dogg, and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, have slightly ventured away from their main business into investing in tech startups, some reaping sizeable returns as a result. Now, it seems another celebrity is about to join, as The Information [paywall] reports that famed musician Pharell Williams is teaming up with Ron Conway, a prominent angel investor, to launch a venture fund that'll mainly target startups led by underrepresented minorities.

The Information reports Pharell Williams and Ron Conway are currently in discussions with limited partners for the new fund, which is notably being planned on the heels of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism across the US. Venture funds that primarily target startup…

Peloton Launches On Roku

Fitness sensation Peloton has formally launched its app on the Roku streaming platform, entailing its live fitness classes can now be streamed by Roku users in the comfort of their homes. The Peloton channel has been made available on the Roku Channel Store, enabling users to stream live fitness sessions for a fee. Payments will be processed on the Roku Pay platform, making signing up much easier for users. Existing Peloton subscribers can also automatically log-in using their credentials and gain access to live fitness sessions.

The coronavirus pandemic has largely driven people away from public gyms towards home fitness activities, and such, online fitness streaming activity has seemingly shot through the roof. According to Roku, streaming on its Health & Fitness category grew more than 130% in May alone. Peloton happens to be a benefit of the large pivot towards home fitness, thanks to its stationary bikes and treadmills with live-streamed fitness sessions that have garnered a…

Canada's Big Banks Join Facebook Boycott

Several big Canadian banks -- namely the Bank of Montreal, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, National Bank of Canada, Bank of Nova Scotia, and the famed Royal Bank of Canada -- have said they'll pause advertisements on Facebook platforms this month, joining a long list of companies that have recently agreed to a Facebook advertisement boycott campaign spearheaded by civil rights groups. The boycott, dubbed as the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign centers on Facebook's policies on content moderation and is primarily pressuring the company to take steps to block hate speech on its platforms. More than 400 brands so far have agreed to the advertisement boycott.

In response to the boycotts, Facebook has agreed to review its content moderation policies and has begun banning many violators, about 250 in number according to the company, from its platforms. Facebook has also opened itself to a civil rights audit. Pressure has surmounted on Facebook both from sh…

Tesla Opens Cybertruck Pre-Orders In China

Electric car maker Tesla has apparently begun taking pre-orders for its recently unveiled Cybertruck electric truck in China, as noted by a newly put-up reservations page on the company's China website. The Cybertruck, which was unveiled late last year, is expected to go in production in 2022. Tesla is taking $100 refundable deposits for the Cybertruck and has already gotten more than 250,000 reservations primarily from US-based customers, according to CEO Elon Musk. The company is now apparently testing potential interest in the Chinese electric car market, which happens to be the world's biggest.

Tesla will offer the Cybertruck in three variants, the cheapest starting at around $40,000 and having about 250 miles of range. The most advanced variant will cost around $70,000.

As of late, Tesla has apparently been on a tear. Only a few days ago, the company surpassed Toyota to become the world's most valuable automaker. Also, a recent report noted of LG Chem, a major Tesla …

LG Chem To Make Tesla Batteries In Korea

South Korean chemicals giant LG Chem is set to begin producing batteries for Tesla vehicles at a domestic factory due to a demand increase from Tesla, as first reported by Reuters. According to Reuters, Tesla is asking LG Chem as well as other of its battery suppliers to increase their supplies in order to cope with a rise in demand for its vehicles. LG Chem is said to be converting some of its production facilities in South Korea to produce batteries for Tesla. Currently, the batteries made by LG Chem for Tesla are produced in a Chinese factory.

Tesla recently released its production numbers for the second quarter of this year, indicating it delivered 90,650 vehicles in the quarter despite a pandemic that suspended operations at its main production facility for weeks. The electric car maker only recently began sourcing batteries from LG Chem but appears to be already wanting for higher-than-normal supplies. Before now, Tesla's batteries primarily came from a large battery factor…

Tesla Delivered 90,650 Vehicles In Q2

As anticipated, Tesla just released its production numbers for the second quarter of this year and indicated it delivered 90,650 vehicles, a slight (4.8%) drop from the previous quarter. Tesla actually managed to beat expectations despite a pandemic that led it to suspend operation for weeks at its main production facility. The majority (80,050) of Tesla's deliveries were Model 3 and Model Y vehicles, its less expensive models, while Model S and Model X vehicles, the more expensive ones, accounted for a minority (10,600).

Analysts had anticipated lower delivery numbers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with some even forecasting as low as 39,000 deliveries in this quarter. A concord of analysts polled by FactSet indicated an average forecast of 72,000 vehicle deliveries for the quarter.

The release of Tesla's latest production results comes on the heels of the company surpassing Japanese automaker Toyota to become the world's most valuable automaker.

Tesla Denies Firing Staff Who Stayed Home

Automaker Tesla has denied recent reports of the company firing three workers after they opted to stay at home rather than turn up to work at the company's Fremont, California, production factory in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic. The report initially came from The Washington Post. In a blog post, Tesla dubbed the reports as "fundamentally untrue", stating that "the employees quoted in recent stories are still employed with Tesla and we have offered them work multiple times". "All we have asked is that our employees talk to us and provide us the details of their own concern so we can do what we can to help find a solution," Tesla penned in its blog post.

After weeks of closure, Tesla re-opened its Fremont production facility in May amid a public spat, spearheaded by CEO Elon Musk, with local authorities. In order to help curtail the coronavirus, Tesla instituted protective measures at the facility. According to Tesla, its protective measures me…

Royole Mulls China IPO

Chinese flexible display maker Royole is considering an initial public offering (IPO) in China after initially planning for one in the U.S., as first reported by Bloomberg [paywall]. Royole already filed confidentially for a public listing in the U.S. earlier this year but seems to now be considering listing in its home base of China. Royole's planned U.S. IPO was intended to raise up to $1 billion in funding for the company, which has already secured $1.1 billion in equity and debt funding as a private company. Royole's last-known funding round was in August of 2018.

Shenzhen-based Royole is a pioneer and global leader in the flexible display market. The company primarily manufactures bendable screens using advanced light-emitting diode technology that can be placed on platforms ranging from smartphones to smart speakers, head-mounted displays, and even hats and bags. Royole sells a suite of hardware products based on the aforementioned platforms.

Royole as a company was onl…

Anduril Nabs $200 Million In New Funding

Anduril Industries, a defense technology startup co-founded by Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey, has announced it's raised $200 million in new funding that values it at $1.9 billion post-money. The new funding was led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, a previous investor in the company. With the new funding, Anduril has now raised -- a total of -- at least $259 million in known funding to fund its ambitions of becoming a defense technology giant with roots in Silicon Valley.

Anduril was only founded three years ago but has racked up a sizeable amount of funding and about $100 million in annual revenues (according to the company). Anduril was founded by Palmer Luckey, who sold his previous company, virtual reality headset maker Oculus, to Facebook for $3 billion. After the sale, he stayed at Facebook for a while before leaving and teaming up with some veterans from data-mining firm Palantir to launch Anduril. Anduril's revenue mainly comes from government defense contr…