Merkley and the challenge of facial recognition technology

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Baker City Herald

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has given us all a somewhat depressing lesson in facial recognition technology.

The Democrat walked up to one of the new Transportation Safety Administration facial scanners and here’s the resulting headline from The Washington Post: “You can say no to a TSA face scan. But even a senator had trouble.”

The government has new gizmos in some airports that use a camera and facial recognition technology to match up travelers with their identification.

The government says its use is voluntary. It’s to speed up identification and airport lines.

When Merkley declined the face scan, he was told by a TSA employee it would cause a significant delay. Fortunately, there was no real delay.

But what do we learn from this? It won’t truly be voluntary if the tradeoff might be a delay or if the government is using delays to nudge people to use it.

There are some virtuous arguments for facial recognition technology and some more sinful.

One of the astounding successes was reported in an article in The New York Times Magazine.

A Homeland Security agent got some photos in 2019 that appeared to show the sexual abuse of a young girl. One had a picture of a man in it. His identity was difficult to make out. A New York investigator took the image and put it through some new facial recognition technology called Clearview AI. It used a database of images, including ones scraped from social media. “The app turned up an odd hit,” the article said. There was an Instagram photo of two people posing at a bodybuilding event in Las Vegas. The hit linked to a small image of a man who was in the photo’s background. To make a long story short, through some clever police work, law enforcement tracked down the man. It was the guy. He got 35 years in prison.

If that’s the kind of thing that facial recognition technology can help with, we are all for it. But a federal study in 2019 did show that the technology can be guilty of racial bias. The technologies have misidentified people who are not white more often – up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified. That is not fair.

It’s newer technology. It’s surely going to improve and has improved. It might make for faster lines at the airport. It might help catch criminals. It also does raise questions about how your image will be stored, shared by marketers, stolen and manipulated.

If you have time, you may want to opt out at the airport to ensure that option is no mirage.