On September 13, Apple unveiled the iPhone X and its flagship feature, the “FaceID”, a facial recognition system that allows the user to unlock his smartphone as well as perform certain actions like payments, only by staring at the screen. Marvel among the fans, suspicion among technology experts. At issue, potential abuses due to the use of biometric systems. Minnesota senator Al Franken even wrote an open letter to Tim Cook’s firm where he questioned the reliability of such technology, as well as its potential uses by Apple. If Mr. Franken addresses only to Apple here, these questions can also apply to other brands offering a facial recognition system. Rightfully.
Facial recognition: a time bomb?
Dr. Joseph J. Atick is one of the pioneers of facial recognition. In the nineties, he greatly contributed to the use of this technology by US government’s authorities to identify criminals. After 9/11, he took the risk of promoting biometrics to spot terrorists, endorsing his remarks with the catchphrase “Terror is not faceless”. In 2014, he explained in the New York Times that he had “saved lives” in his time, but also admitted that this technology could sound the death knell of privacy by “basically robbing everyone of their anonymity”. Concerned about singing the praises of a technology potentially harmful to the public, he also argued that if the industry “do not step up to the plate and accept responsibility, there could be unexpected apps and consequences”.
What if it was already too late?
Dr. Atick was right. The technology is already going out of control. In February 2014, nine privacy lawyers were invited by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) to discuss with companies on the establishment of a code of ethics ensuring a proper use of facial recognition. Among them, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Democracy and Technology. In an open letter sent to NTIA in 2015, the three groups announced their withdrawal. At issue, a disregard of the “basic principles” of intimacy by the companies, which refused to inform citizens that they would be monitored and identified. In a separate statement, EFF announces that in the United States, millions of “faces” are flowing in secret between private agencies and government entities to strengthen laws.
FaceID, a new mass surveillance toy?
Thus, the arrival of Apple’s FaceID was not met with unanimous enthusiasm. If the firm guarantees that it does not store the data in an external bank, this does not prevent Wired from doubting. The magazine recalls that despite Apple’s transparency initiative, it is not immune to governmental pressure. In 2016, the FBI had already attempted to force the brand to supply the biometric data of the perpetrator of the shooting of San Bernardino, Syed Rizwan Farook. And could do it again.
Meanwhile in China
The Chinese government does not hide its abusive use of facial recognition. It even uses it to humiliate its citizens, as reported by News China. Several cities in the country have adopted a specific punishment method for pedestrians crossing out of the lines. They are automatically photographed and then, within twenty minutes, “photograph and personal information such as their ID number and home address are displayed on the screen at the crossroad”. To further strengthen the dystopian aspect of this technology, The Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing’s main touristic attractions, uses it to stop the theft of toilet paper. To obtain 60 to 70 centimeters of toilet paper, the visitor must pass his face in front of a scanner. After that, the distributor will not give more paper to this person before nine minutes, tells the New York Times.