In the 1987 action movie RoboCop, a reanimated police officer was given superhuman abilities by having parts of his body replaced with robotic technology after being killed in the line of duty.
For Chinese police, some of this technology can be duplicated without going to such extremes. In the movie, RoboCop had upgraded eyesight that allowed him to recognise wanted criminals just by looking in their general direction. Now, thanks to new facial recognition technology built into glasses, Chinese police can do the same.
This technology, already in use, means that a police officer can be walking down the street minding their own business, all the while, every face they come across is being scanned by the glasses and that information benchmarked against the criminal database. Wanted criminals need only accidentally wander into the path of these glasses to trigger a visual alert. Cleverly, the glasses will show the officer text saying that a certain person is a wanted felon and action is required. The officer can then choose how to proceed, without the unnecessary foot race that would eventuate from some form of audible alert.
Interestingly, this type of technology is not going down well with human rights groups. Parallels are being drawn between the facial recognition technology and excessive CCTV monitoring now present in many major cities. In fact, human rights groups have called for additional oversight and even the removal of the technology until any privacy concerns or issues can be ironed out. Their argument is that this type of technology can form the basis for intentional or unintentional monitoring of innocent citizens. If a person is minding their own business, and accidentally wanders near a crime, this type of technology would allow them to be tagged and categorised without due process. In other words, if they were caught on camera using the glasses, their face could inadvertently end up on a police database even though they hadn’t committed a crime.
As the security argument becomes one of politics rather than privacy, the battle lines are being drawn as to what value should be put on individual worries when compared to societal concerns for dangerous criminals to be brought to justice without committing any more crimes. Of course, both camps could easily agree that if the technology were only to be used against dangerous individuals, then there would be no issues at all. However, facial recognition requires all faces to be scanned in order to find the guilty – you can’t just scan the bad guys.
This will come down to what the information is used for after the scan is complete. Unfortunately, over the last few years, politicians have done little to help their citizens feel comfortable that the various security agencies are worthy of their trust. While concerns about privacy would have, in the past, been deemed by many to be conspiracy theories- the government only wants to protect us after all- for many, this is no longer the case. Added to this are worries about unintentional breaches, such as hacks and even clumsiness on the part of security agencies and their leadership. Then, finally, there are the legislative concerns – how will the database be policed? Do you automatically appear on it once you have committed a crime at all? Does a speeding ticket constitute a crime? Will this technology be combined with CCTV technology to create a field of awareness that knows exactly where everyone is at any given time?
The answers to these questions may come in the form of an ongoing conversation, but based on previous experience, it’s good to see governments, police forces and security agencies being held to account when new technology comes online.