The Technological Leaps Hitting the Market Show the True Face of Facial Recognition

Posted on March 17, 2023

A new report from the LA Times reveals the frightening scale of potential civil liberties violations posed by recent advances in facial recognition technology. The piece profiles a company called Vintra which is showcasing the “co-appearance” feature of its facial recognition products. This feature allows users to flag individuals who are seen frequently interacting with a target in person. In essence, the software keeps track of faces that appear together with the target face more than a specified number of times and/or minutes and alerts the operator querying faces of possible associations. The operator can then query these associated faces to determine their whereabouts as well.

Reporters attempted to follow up with law enforcement agencies that purchased Vintra’s products to determine the scale of the deployment of the co-appearance feature. Departments were either guarded in their response, or outright denied its usage. Even taken at face value, such statements do not preclude the future use of such features, as they are only an upsell from Vintra away.

This is only a taste of the perils posed by facial recognition. What makes facial recognition so dangerous is the myriad of systems that can be made to interoperate with it to greatly extend its reach and deepen its impact.

First, facial recognition doesn’t have to be enabled directly on a camera device, or even the software that orchestrates the network. Rather, facial recognition analysis can basically be grafted onto imagery, used as part of a separate analysis step, after the fact. Any video footage or photographic image that can be digitized can be subject to facial recognition.

Second, the metadata generated as an inherent consequence of every computer transaction can be used to derive sophisticated and intrusive patterns about a target’s behavior. Cameras that take images for facial recognition keep strict records of IP addresses (and, thus, locations) and timestamps. Any facial recognition-equipped camera network can therefore build accurate records of where a target was and when they were there. Analyze the record far back enough and a pattern of life emerges. Just weeks of metadata on where individuals are at what times can infer where a person works, where they spend their free time, whom they associate with, and much more.

Even more alarming, all of this tracking is accomplished without ever monitoring the target’s cell phone or any other electronic device they may carry on their person. In light of facial recognition, all the concerns over cell phone tracking—telecommunication companies’ data retention and law enforcement cooperation, police use of stingrays, etc.—are rendered totally moot. One can never pick up a phone again and much of the same tracking would be possible with facial recognition and a sprawling camera network (like Chicago’s, the largest in the US). As long as one’s face is in a database, one can be tracked.

Finally, AI makes facial recognition much more potent. AI can be used to, for instance, to render models of what an individual’s face may have looked like in the past, or will look like in the future, enabling the surveillance of someone across their lifespan. The NSA already collects huge troves of encrypted data in the hopes of being able to break it in the future, and thus see into the past. Even amateur digital artists have played with this very capability of AI to generate amusing images of celebrities.

But that’s only the beginning of what AI can do for facial recognition. Generative AI models, like the kind that have become a popular source of entertainment to make artwork, could be used to create faces out of witness descriptions. These synthesized faces could then be fed into a facial recognition programming running on a camera network to locate individuals whose faces are within a certain latitude of resemblance to the generated image.

This is what makes the regulation of facial recognition so paramount to preserving any shred of civil liberties in the 21st century. It is every bit as vital a struggle as is being fought over the surveillance of our digital devices.

You can read the full LA Times article here.