‘Predictive Policing’: Facial Recognition Technology Could Make U.S. Look A Lot Like China

Written by Lauren DeLisa Coleman
facial recognition
Anyone can do biometric monitoring. Facebook says it can offer facial recognition simply by pointing a phone at someone. China uses similar tech with AI to “predict” who could commit crimes. Image: Mike MacKenzie/Flickr/Creative Commons

Facebook recently announced that it can now offer facial recognition simply by pointing a phone at someone. Simultaneously it was also reported that the Chinese are using a similar technology coupled with AI to “predict” who could commit crimes. 

Just days before, a second round of protests took place in Harlem over show-of-force by police at subway stations that resulted in arrests. In a sea of social change, emerging technology and reinvention of race models, could the freedoms that we enjoy today — paid for with the lives of many of our ancestors — now be in great peril?

Identity, boundaries and values are increasingly a narrative in this country but perhaps very pointedly so for African Americans. Indeed, for the second time this month, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in Harlem to protest the increased activity of police in the subways. Such activity led to tension with the NYPD and resulted in a reported 58 arrests.

Protestors gathered to show disapproval over what many say is unjust treatment of teenagers and the homeless in the name of fare-evasion. The situation could get worse. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised to send 500 more police officers into the subways beginning in 2020 amidst controversy that data actually exists to show that subway crime and fare evasion are increasing. There is also debate over whether the city can train the officers properly.

If it can’t, and the city begins to rely on new technology for support, we could be entering a dangerous era. We have already seen pilot programs leveraging artificial intelligence launched in San Francisco. Should this be ramped up, the U.S. could start to resemble what many say is currently happening in China, a country with a mandate to become the world leader in AI. 

According to a recent article in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Chinese police are being guided by a massive data collection-and-analysis system that uses AI to select entire categories of residents from particular provinces for detainment. The article goes on to report how the system can amass vast amounts of intimate personal data through manual searches and facial recognition cameras to try and conduct “predictive” policing.

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While some might think the leap to such behavior is far from U.S. thinking, an activist organization recently conducted an event to show just how easy it is to collect data from people on the street via facial recognition tech, and how there is nearly no regulation currently in place to protect us from such activity.

The digital rights group Fight for the Future planned a stunt as part of its campaign to get facial recognition technology banned. Three of the organization’ activists donned hooded white jumpsuits with yellow signs saying “Facial recognition in progress” on the front. They also had headpieces equipped with phones that ran Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition technology. The action showed just how easy it is for anyone to conduct biometric monitoring and calls into question the protection of one’s human rights.

Facebook has entered into another realm of privacy breach with the revelation that the company developed a facial recognition package that could recognize employees simply by pointing a mobile phone camera at them. Though Facebook says the app was only functional via opt-in from both sides, there are murmurs about the truth to this claim.

Artificial intelligence, though powerfully supportive in many ways, can surely be seen to be the biggest threat to the 21st century if not correctly monitored. The government seems lagging in what could be a monstrous invasion if used by police on a demographic that has historically had great tension with police. New York state announced last summer that it has convened a panel to study the impact of artificial intelligence, but the focus is solely on impact in the workplace rather than the very real and present danger in day-to-day comings and goings. 

In an effort to have all voices represented, people may need to become more vigilant in tracking stories pertaining to this and writing to policymakers on Capitol Hill to include more varied and frequent voices within its relatively quiet AI Caucus, so that everyone has fair and just protection as we head deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.