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Surveillance and control through facial recognition technology

Sameera Casmod |
02 February 2024 | 23:12 SAST
2-min read

Image: Innovatrix

Facial recognition technology, once a sci-fi concept, has become an integral part of our daily lives, from unlocking smartphones to securing university campuses. However, its widespread implementation is raising significant concerns regarding privacy invasion and racial bias.

Sharrona Pearl, Associate Professor of Bioethics and History at Drexel University, wrote an article in which she explores the historical context of surveillance and tracking individuals, dating back to the 19th century with practices like fingerprinting and anthropometry.

“I started to think about the technology, but also the very long history of how we have tracked people using surveillance, using their bodies. And my goal there was to show that while technology has certainly improved, we have a long analogue history, so a non-digital history of deciding which kinds of people we feel should be able to move through space freely, and the converse, who should not?” Pearl said during an interview on Radio Islam International.

She highlights how these systems have disproportionately targeted marginalised communities, leading to concerns about discrimination and violations of rights.

One of the most alarming aspects of facial recognition technology is its racial bias. Studies have shown that it falsely identifies people of colour at significantly higher rates than white individuals, with some reports indicating a 100-fold difference. Despite recent improvements in technology, these biases persist, raising questions about the fairness and accuracy of facial recognition systems.

“There are people [who are paid particular attention]. The narrative is always ‘there are people who represent a threat’, and we track those people. But what constitutes a threat is something that’s very much determined by those who are in power,” Pearl explained.

The widespread expansion of facial recognition into various aspects of daily life, driven by governmental and private interests in data harvesting, poses serious implications. The data collected through facial recognition technology can be used for various purposes, including tracking individuals’ movements, behaviours, and personal information. This raises ethical concerns about consent, autonomy, and the right to privacy.

The potential consequences of unchecked facial recognition surveillance are far-reaching. Individuals, particularly those from marginalised communities, may face increased scrutiny, discrimination, and violations of their rights. Concerns also arise regarding the use of facial recognition technology in sensitive areas such as healthcare and immigration, where individuals may be apprehended or targeted based on their facial data.

Listen to the full interview on Your World Today with Mufti Yusuf Moosagie.


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