by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 12
August 2020
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The spiritual transgression of facial recognition technology

The face is too precious to be treated like a unit of data
by Elizabeth Oldfield
A man wears a mask in protest at AFR. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Yesterday the civil liberties campaign group Liberty won a landmark court case against South Wales Police around their use of facial recognition technology. The court ruled that the use of Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) was unlawful because there was a lack of guidance on where AFR could be used and who could be put on a watchlist, as well as data protection issues.

Facial recognition technology has many uses, primarily in law enforcement, but it also raises substantial privacy concerns. Many of us who object to its widespread use do so for concrete reasons about how power in society is structured, but also for deeper and less definable ones.

Why does facial recognition technology provoke the “yuck factor”, in the language of moral philosophers? The etymology of ‘recognition’, which derives from to ‘know again’, gives us a clue. Face to face encounters are intimate, and we are known primarily through our faces, but in facial recognition that intimacy, that knowing, is removed.

There is much debate in the AI ethics field about whether machines can ‘know’. They can certainly learn, but knowledge, at least of a person, has long been rooted in relationships. Most of us will remember giggling through GCSE English as we were taught that ‘know’ in Shakespeare and the King James Bible was a euphemism for sex. But machines don’t need to know us in that relational sense to do a huge amount of damage, either through biased algorithmic design or data collection, by recording and storing our facial features.

Jewish philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas based a whole ethical project on the call of the human face, through which we encounter and recognise our connection to each other. “What we call the face is precisely this exceptional presentation of self by self”, he wrote, “the face presents itself, and demands justice”. The New Testament speaks of a moment ahead when believers will see God, not “through a glass darkly, but face to face”. And yet, when faces are treated like just another unit of data, to be harvested by the global surveillance machine, something deep — even spiritual — is being transgressed.

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Paul Carline
Paul Carline
1 year ago

Congratulations on having the courage to use the word ‘spiritual’! That’s a whole area of human nature and experience which the current religion of scientism denies a priori – but which is fundamental to the crucial need to distinguish between all living organisms and machines.

Martin Price
Martin Price
1 year ago

South Wales Police knew full well that they were pushing legal boundaries with the introduction of this technology. They have an established PR department whose sole purpose is to ‘sell’ the benefits to the general public with little challenge from anyone in the Welsh media. My understanding is the system has a high incidence of both false positives and false negatives. The false positives being higher than the number of arrests made. I do not understand how a Chief Constable is able to implement a system such as this without the clear agreement of the Home Secretary and Parliament.

Tom Knott
Tom Knott
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Price

Perhaps it’s because parliament has given up trying to protect our civil liberties. The Government is currently issuing diktats without parliamentary scrutiny and the police are enforcing them without recourse to the courts. But the police have been using all manner of surveillance cameras and fixed penalty notices for over 30 years with impunity. We haven’t bothered standing up against creeping authoritarianism and now it’s too late. The police state is here.

Stephen Crossley
Stephen Crossley
1 year ago

The increasingly widespread use of facial recognition technology by the police and private companies in the UK is an unregulated cancer in our country. As has been demonstrated by yesterday’s landmark court case in South Wales there is little regulation or legislation and zero input from the public as to what constitutes the appropriate use of this incredibly intrusive technology. In the US the American Civil Liberties Union is the torch bearer for the freedom of the individual against the creeping power of the state whereas although in the South Wales case Liberty have helped fight the good fight on our behalf they have nowhere near the clout or public awareness of the ACLU.

Amid the dozens of articles on Wokeness, Covid 19, Trans issues, BLM et al in the right-leaning media that I have read and enjoyed in recent months, I have seen very few on the implications for our freedom of the unregulated use of facial recognition technology and only then in relation to its use as the basis of the new 2020 Social Credit system in China.

Much as it amuses me to read about the latest Twitter outrage with my morning coffee I would urge the serious journalists of Unherd and others to illuminate their readers on the major issues surrounding this incredibly important but under-reported subject.

Clay Bertram
Clay Bertram
1 year ago

Fascinating, brief article. Deeply concerning questions abound as to oversight of such technology by authorities and the likelihood of abuse if stringent regulation of these powers is not enforced. Civil Liberties in an age of Artificial Intelligence.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago

This is an interesting take on facial recognition technology. However, the quantification of human activity and characteristics has been going on for decades, most likely starting off with the education system which puts children into sorting boxes.

As machines become more human-like, humans are made to become more machine-like.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

I agree, this is the logical conclusion when you regard Man as a soulless animal, a biological machine. Disregard that a person IS a spiritual being (no matter what ‘religion’ or none at all) and you are left with meat bodies that can be controlled at will, with no recognition of their rights, dignity or individuality; just one of a HERD.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
1 year ago

There is a curious pleasure when one recognises someone in a crowd, or when oneself is recognised by another human being; that one is not wholly alone in this world.
Contrast this to the soulless machine recognition of a surveillance camera and it’s facial data-matching computer and one feels deeply the lack of humanity, it’s over-riding of the human right to privacy.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
1 year ago

It’s satanic, but that’s modern technology. We live in a world where what can be tracked and quantified takes precedence over everything that is thoughtful and qualitative, precisely because the former is easy and the latter isn’t.

Janie Doebuck
Janie Doebuck
1 year ago

You put your finger on precisely why the masking is so disturbing and alienating and destructive of human relationships. I can’t see people’s faces and some part of me (whether I like it or not) does not track the maskers as being quite human….it’s like my brain is saying “well, they appear mostly human but there’s something that’s way off. Some sort of variation on the human thing.” I wonder if this perception/feeling is more or less hardwired. How does one recognize one’s own kind, i.e. one’s own species which seems like it a pretty basic survival requirement. I am interested in reading what Emmanual Levinas has to say.

Thank you.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
1 year ago

All information can eventually become public without the consent of those involved in its production (in any sense). FR leads to data identifying individuals, their whereabouts, their activity, their associates, their tastes etc etc all to be stored indefinitely on a server awaiting and algorithm that will, one day, produce it to anyone who can obtain access. Social media has already removed privacy for billions of people, add FR and privacy in any form will be gone. We will only then know what we have lost.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
1 year ago

All facial recognition does is to match the pattern of facial features to a name. much like putting your photo alongside your column to aid recognition, really.

Nick Pointon
Nick Pointon
1 year ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

But the key difference is putting your photo alongside your column is voluntary.