A tool is not a way of…bad things

For years I’ve uttered the phrase “a tool is not a way of life,” and a recent statement from Rank One Computing reminded me of this fact. In a piece on the ethical use of facial recognition, Rank One Computing stated the following in passing:

[Rank One Computing] is taking a proactive stand to communicate that public concerns should focus on applications and policies rather than the technology itself.

I emphatically believe that all technologies are neutral. They can be used for good, or they can be used for…bad things.

And yes, facial recognition has been misused.

It is an undeniable fact that a police jurisdiction used a computerized facial recognition result as a justifiable reason for arrest, rather than as an investigative lead that would need to be supported by additional evidence.

But that incident, or ten incidents, or one hundred incidents, does NOT mean that ALL uses of facial recognition should be demonized, or even that SELECTED uses of facial recognition should be demonized (Amazon bad; Apple good).

Policies are not foolproof

Now I will grant that establishment of a policy or procedure does NOT necessarily mean that people will always act in compliance with that policy/procedure.

As an example, one accepted practice in lineup generation is double-blind lineup generation, in which you have different people involved in different parts of the lineup generation and witness viewing process. For example, these two roles can be distinct:

  • A person who knows who the arrested individual is creates the lineup (with additional safeguards to ensure that the created lineup isn’t biased).
  • A second person who DOESN’T know who the arrested individual is shows the lineup to the witness and records what the witness says and doesn’t say when viewing the lineup. The reason for the presence of a separate person is to ensure that the person administering the lineup doesn’t provide subconscious (or conscious) hints as to who the “right” person would be.

Now you can set up your police department’s procedures to require this, and your software vendor could design its software to support this. But that doesn’t prevent a corrupt Chief of Police from saying, “Jane, I want you to create the lineup AND show it to the witness. And make sure the witness chooses the RIGHT guy!”

But policy-based facial recognition is better than no facial recognition at all

But…if I may temporarily allow myself to run a tired cliché into the ground, that doesn’t mean you throw out the baby with the bathwater.

From 1512. Old clichés are old. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=689179

Rather than banning facial recognition, we should concentrate on defining ethical uses.

And there’s one more thing to consider. If you ban computerized facial recognition, how are you going to identify people? As I’ve noted elsewhere, witness (mis)identification is rampant with biases that make even the bottom-tier facial recognition algorithms seem accurate.

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