by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 12
August 2020

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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