The rise and rise of facial recognition technology

Facial recognition technology is increasing in usage in New Zealand, across both the public and private sectors, but a new report raises human rights concerns. So what questions do business leaders need to ask? 

Facial recognition technology usage in New Zealand is increasing across both the public and private sectors including by government departments, policing, banking, travel, security and customer tracking.

And research released at the end of 2020 has found that this increasing usage has impacts on human rights, such as privacy, freedom of expression, the right to peaceful protest and the right to be free from discrimination.

The research project, led by Associate Professor Nessa Lynch with Dr Marcin Betkier, both from the Faculty of Law, at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, also highlights the current regulation gap in New Zealand. Their report makes 15 recommendations that aim to inform governments how best to manage the risks of the use of FRT.

“If this regulation gap isn’t plugged soon, the impacts on human rights – such as privacy, freedom of expression, the right to peaceful protest, and the right to be free from discrimination – are potentially extensive,” says Lynch in a statement.

 The research, entitled Facial Recognition Technology in New Zealand – Toward a Legal and Ethical Framework, involved a stock-take of the use of FRT here and in comparable countries, with a focus on use by the state sector.

The spectrum of impact ranges from low-impact uses such as verification at the border, to high-impact activities like live automatic facial recognition from CCTV feeds and controversial apps such as Clearview AI, which is used in policing in other countries and has been trialed in New Zealand.

 “We ask there to be an immediate moratorium on live automatic facial recognition by police, due to its impact on individual and societal rights. We also ask for additional oversight of police access to driving licence and passport databases, while a range of recommendations are taken into account,” says Lynch.

The comprehensive range of recommendations includes giving biometric information – such as DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and facial data – special protection and implementing high-quality privacy impact assessments and algorithm impact assessments.

 “We also recommend the government establishes independent oversight of the collection, retention, and comparison of facial images. We also want to see transparency around the sharing of facial images between state agencies, other jurisdictions, and the private sector,” she says.

The research was co-authored with Professor Liz Campbell of Monash University and Dr Joe Purshouse of the University of East Anglia and supported by the New Zealand Law Foundation.

The introduction to the extensive report, while mainly focusing on the state use of FRT, says it contributes to the understanding of how and when this rapidly emerging technology should be used and how it should be regulated. It is centred in what has been described as the ‘second wave’ of algorithmic accountability.

“While the first wave of algorithmic accountability focuses on improving existing systems, a second wave of research has asked whether they should be used at all – and, if so, who gets to govern them.

“This project seeks to address the regulation gap through ascertaining how FRT can and should be regulated in New Zealand.

“While the benefits that might be offered by FRT surveillance are increasingly observable, its effect on civil liberties is subtler, but certainly pernicious,” the report’s introduction states.

“Given the potential for FRT to be used as a key identity and access management tool in the future, there are pertinent questions around how images are being collected and stored now by the private sector. Where are these images being stored? Who has access to this data? What else might the images be used for?”

The report notes that every technology has benefits and risks, and FRT is no different.

“Any potential regulation must balance the public interest in availability and use of a technology with potential risks to collective and individual rights and interests.”

In looking at the current and future uses of the technology the report states that in a New Zealand context, there has been a noticeable increase in discussion of its potential applications, with adoption of the technology on the increase in both the private and public sectors.

“As noted, our primary focus in this report is use by the state sector, but state use inevitably leverages the private sector. The increasing use also contributes to questions of social licence.”

Asked about the dangers of using FRT for a business and any potential backlash Nessa Lynch told Management she thinks if businesses are not transparent about use there could be backlash as people are concerned about privacy and information sharing.

She also noted that the report stated that there is a spectrum of impact on rights and interests such as privacy, however, “that some non-compulsory and consensual uses can be acceptable while broad-based surveillance is not”.

As to whether New Zealand businesses have a social licence to use this technology, Lynch says that if they act in compliance with privacy legislation and are clear about the use and consent to use.

As well as detailing the extent of the use of FRT in New Zealand by police and state agencies, the first section of the report also details some uses of FRT in the private sector. Below is a precis of some of those highlighted.

Travel and airports: The use of FRT is on the rise in New Zealand airports. Between 2015 and 2016, SmartGate use also increased with 1.15 million passengers using the gates between December and February – a 15 percent increase on the previous year.

The report says that Wellington airport is planning on introducing technology to verify international travellers at bag-drop in 2021, the idea being to speed up the process.

Like New Zealand, many countries utilise smart-gate technologies in border control processes. “Many airlines are looking to implement curb-to-gate. Using FRT at check-in, baggage drop, access to lounge and boarding means that no ticket or passport is needed for identity-checking.”

It notes that Qantas has trialled using FRT for the ticketing process. The company held trials in Australia where people used their face instead of a boarding pass. In Los Angeles, the company is currently trialing a system where FRT will replace both boarding passes and passports.

The report notes too that some ridesharing companies are considering using FRT to confirm that the passenger is the right passenger and that the driver matches the person who is licensed to drive, in order to improve passenger safety.

Banking and finance: The report says that FRT may serve a number a of functions in the banking, finance and anti-money laundering sector, mainly in identity verification and that most, or all, New Zealand banks report using FRT technology in identity verification procedures.

“ASB bank has previously announced a pilot scheme for using FRT as a means of identifying customers and Westpac has implemented image matching for setting up an account. Heartland Bank uses FRT to maintain compliance with anti-money laundering laws, and the company OriginID is marketing a FR tool to accountants and lawyers for anti-money laundering compliance.

“Paymark is considering the use of FRT as a means to create a seamless experience for customers when paying for products. BNZ uses FRT to allow customers to log into their mobile banking application. Cooperative Bank also uses this technology.

“Whatever the improvements to efficiency and customer experience, the privacy of biometric data remains a concern. In recognition of these concerns, Paymark stated: ‘No retailer or third party will have access to any facial identity data’.”

Retail security: Businesses are also employing FRT for security purposes. In May 2018 a man was taken aside by staff at a supermarket in Dunedin after he was mistakenly identified as a shoplifter. The parent company Foodstuff did not identify which of its stores were using FRT to identify shoplifters from existing lists of suspect individuals.

“Both the Prime Minister and Privacy Commissioner noted concerns around the inaccuracy of the technology based on overseas research, highlighting the need for regulation.”

The report says it’s been reported that the Warehouse and Mitre 10 were trialling FRT for security purposes in January 2020.

Customer loyalty/tracking: The report says that FRT can be used in several contexts in customer loyalty and tracking in the retail environment. In the United States, fast food chains have self-service ordering kiosks – the customer can register using a loyalty programme and then when they enter the chain and walk towards kiosks, they will be recognised using FRT and food orders from previous visits are remembered.

FRT is also used to blend the online and offline retail experiences.  For example, video analytics data from a retail shop can inform offers for advertising online. Alternatively, browsing behaviour in online shops can inform how retail staff should interact with customers in-store.

Smart cities: NEC has been partnering with local governments in New Zealand to develop ‘smart city’ capabilities. In Wellington, trials were held with sensor cameras that could detect screaming; paint fumes from graffiti; and identify groups that may end up in fights. “NEC’s technologies do have FRT capabilities, however these are not currently used by local government in New Zealand.”

Attendance tracking: Churches in various countries around the world are using FRT to track the attendance of members. And FRT is also being advertised to workplaces as a means of increasing efficiency for payroll management. “This may have implications for employment law, particularly where an employee refuses to provide their biometric data to an employer.”

Security and access: FRT may be used for authentication or verification purposes such as entry to secured places e.g. military bases, border crossings, or to access restricted resources including medical records.

“FRT might be used as back-end verification systems to uncover duplicate applications for things such as benefits that require other forms of identification. The United States, New Zealand and Pakistan and other countries have used FRT for applications such as passports and visas.”

FRT may be used in hotels and resorts to identify people at check-in, access to their rooms, spa, dining etc.

Gambling and casinos: The report says that casinos were one of the earliest adopters and most widespread users of FRT. Casinos can use FRT for security purposes, identifying cheaters or advantage players when they arrive on the premises and alerting casino staff.

“Further, FRT can help casinos to meet their obligations to minimise harm from gambling by identifying people who have opted to be placed on self-exclusion lists or individuals who are underage.”

SkyCity is using FRT to record customer visitation to ensure that they can support the Ministry of Health with contact tracing if required.

Agriculture, companion animals and conservation: The report also notes that there have been some quintessentially New Zealand adaptations of FRT. “The agricultural sector, particularly sheep farming, is beginning to realise the value of FRT in the identification of livestock. It is likely that such technology could provide another method of detecting sheep rustling, which can have a significant impact on farmers.”

Pets in New Zealand are also purportedly reaping the potential rewards with FRT being used for reuniting lost pets with their owners.  

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