Face Recognition and COVID-19

An Amazon delivery driver in Delaware was filmed by a Ring doorbell as he reacted to snacks that were left for him and the video went viral. The kindness of the homeowner and the driver’s delight was a fun diversion and a reminder of how thoughtful people can be. However, the driver didn’t know he was being filmed until the video went viral. Neither the homeowner or the driver expected the video to go viral and they weren’t prepared when the identity of both were revealed to the internet.

Amazon driver at a front door taken with a Nest doorbell camera

This raises some ethical questions: Should the homeowner have gotten consent from the driver before posting the video? Should the Ring doorbell have had a sign alerting people to the fact that they were being filmed? With all new technology comes questions about how it is appropriately used and as a society we are still working out the rules on the entire category of surveillance technology. This is a slow process and we go through it with each new technology we develop.

Face recognition technology is often singled out of all the different biometric modalities because you can be filmed and identified without your knowledge. But I think it’s a mistake to focus on the technology – there are other biometric modalities that can be collected from a distance and the technology is advancing at a rapid pace. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, people began to wear face masks, something they had not normally done. Suddenly, you couldn’t unlock your iPhone using your face anymore – the phone didn’t recognize you when you were wearing a mask. Within months, Apple responded by releasing an iOS update that allowed it to work with face masks. Several biometric vendors have already adapted their biometric facial recognition algorithms to accommodate the wearing of face masks. One vendor. Rank One Computing, has released an algorithm that does ‘periocular recognition’ which only uses the part of the face around the eyes and forehead. I’ve written about biometric accuracy before and it’s a complicated topic, but the new algorithm has been bench marked to their face recognition algorithm and surprisingly there isn’t a significant reduction in performance when you focus on the eyes.

In general, face recognition technology already can identify strangers better than people can identify people they do not know. But people are better at recognizing the faces they are familiar with and will outperform a computer on that task every time.

Face recognition technology can be used as a tool for mass surveillance and it can also be used in a privacy preserving way. How do we best use it while also protecting individual privacy? We do that by establishing written rules (laws) that govern how the technology is used and by establishing the unwritten rules that we accept as civilized behavior.

Prior to the pandemic, consumers had started to push back against facial recognition being used for mass surveillance and states took steps to regulate the technology. But this a complex issue. The technology is useful when used appropriately and because of its contactless and hygienic nature, there are critical ways that facial recognition can help during the pandemic. At hospitals, face recognition allows healthcare workers to be recognized and granted access to secure areas without having to touch anything or remove PPE. No technology is inherently good or evil – you must consider the application. Generally, when face recognition is used in a way that is voluntary and opt-in, it can be incredibly useful without causing harm.

At Blink Identity, we turn the traditional model upside down. Everything we do is centered around ensuring that the individual has visibility and control over their data and how it is used. Learn more about our privacy preserving identification technology here.

Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on facebook

Want to read more about identity technology & privacy? Subscribe now.

Your email address will be used exclusively for the stated purpose and will not be made available to any other party.