Under surveillance

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Facial recognition technology is becoming an increasingly controversial tool in the fight against crime. Yet it also holds significant positive potential for other business sectors. Newton global equities portfolio manager Paul Markham considers the facial recognition debate and its potential applications.

The surveillance society is branching out. In the UK, what started as a closed circuit TV (CCTV) revolution in the 1990s is increasingly embracing facial recognition technologies.

In theory, these services – which are used to identify known individuals against an existing computer database – can help the police and intelligence services pinpoint known criminals, apprehend potential offenders and prevent crime.

In practise their use has proved more problematic. Fears of a ‘Big Brother’ style society with constant TV monitoring of individuals have preoccupied civil liberty groups concerned with the blanket use of CCTV ever since its introduction.

Data from 2017 showed how in London alone there were over 420,000 CCTV cameras installed¹ – with various plans to upgrade these for facial recognition and other uses and introduce so-called smart cameras in more public and private spaces.²

Street level

The creeping spread of surveillance technology has been broadly tolerated as a useful tool in combating terrorism and crime. For now, legal regulation of facial recognition systems remains fairly relaxed.

However, not everyone is happy. Pilot tests of facial recognition systems in the UK have so far yielded patchy results and courted controversy.

Number of CCTV cameras in selected cities

Table with orange, white and grey rows

Source: Centre for Technology Innovation at Brookings. 2017.

For instance, more than 2,000 people at an event in Cardiff were wrongly identified by police as potential criminals;³ when piloting the technology, the London Metropolitan Police mistakenly identified 102 people as potential suspects, although no arrests were made.⁴

For Newton global equities portfolio manager Paul Markham there are some legitimate ethical concerns about certain uses of facial recognition technology. Nevertheless, he is optimistic positive applications can be found for this technology and believes it is an area of rich potential for software and electronic component manufacturers.

“Many airports are now widely using facial recognition to speed up passport checks and some smartphone apps employ similar technology, allowing users to unlock their phones via their facial image.”

Retail potential

“In the future, electronic advertising boards and pillars could include facial and mood recognition technology or gauge the age, broad socio-economic profile or even mood of people viewing them,” he says.

The main beneficiaries of this technology, he believes, will be microchip and software manufacturers and data and internet service providers. However, he points out that facial recognition technology continues to face practical problems and potential glitches.

“The more images of a person that are gathered and stored, the more accurate facial recognition systems should be. That said, they are far from fool proof. Although thermal recognition and other additional checks can help, 100% accuracy of identification with these systems is some way off.”

While Markham believes law abiding citizens have little to fear from CCTV and facial recognition technology, he also points out that while criminal detection technology may lead the way, hackers, criminals and other disruptors are rarely far behind in developing techniques and technologies to neutralise them.

Markham points to the development of devices criminals can use to mask their faces from electronic identification. Examples of this include specially designed infra-red wired glasses.

US and Chinese scientists at the University of Shanghai have also developed an ‘identity stealing’ baseball cap they claim can fool facial recognition cameras into thinking the wearer is someone else.⁵

Markham adds: “Facial recognition fooling technology is really just another iteration of the standard cat and mouse game played between security and hackers and criminals and the police. However fast technology moves, the ways of breaking it or hacking it are never far behind.”

He adds: “As the technology behind this improves, we are likely to find more everyday uses for it. Despite some ethical concerns from civil liberties groups, governments will probably continue to use and develop these systems, ostensibly for security purposes.

“Given the ongoing and broadly held concerns over terrorism and crime – and barring some serious backlash over the use of facial recognition systems – it is doubtful any government would be willing to legislate in a way that would block their own ability to use it.”

Shares issued by a company, representing an ownership interest.

¹Brookings. Number of CCTV cameras in 2017.
²FT. Dragnet surveillance. 02 August 2019.
³Guardian. Welsh police wrongly identify thousands as potential criminals. 05 May 2018.
BBC. Facial recognition: What is AFR? And why is it being challenged? 21 May 2019.
Daily Mail. The identity-stealing baseball cap that uses infrared light to fool facial recognition cameras into thinking you’re someone else. 21 March 2018.


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