In a school canteen in Gateshead, cameras scan the faces of children, taking payment automatically after identifying them with facial recognition. More than 200 miles away in North London, staff at a care home recently took part in a trial that used facial data to verify their Covid-19 vaccine status. And in convenience stores around the country, staff are alerted to potential shoplifters by a smart CCTV system that taps into a database of individuals deemed suspect.
In each case, biometric data has been harnessed to try to save time and money. But the growing use of our bodies to unlock areas of the public and private sphere has raised questions about everything from privacy to data security and racial bias.
CRB Cunninghams, the US-owned company whose facial recognition tech is being deployed in lunch halls, has said its systems speed up payment and could reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread via contact with surfaces. The system was first tested at Kingsmeadow school in Gateshead last year and dozens of schools have signed up to follow suit.
Enthusiasm for the system may be on the wane now, though, after North Ayrshire council suspended use of the technology at nine schools following a backlash. The decision to back out came after parents and data ethics experts expressed concerns that the trade-off between convenience and privacy may not have been fully considered.
“It’s about time-saving,” said Prof Sandra Wachter, a data ethics expert at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Is that worth having a database of children’s faces somewhere?”
Stephanie Hare, author of Technology Ethics, sees the use of children’s biometric data as a “disproportionate” way to make lunch queues quicker. “You’re normalising children understanding their bodies as something they use to transact,” she said. “That’s how you condition an entire society to use facial recognition.”
Experts are concerned that biometric data systems are not only flawed in some cases, but are increasingly entering our lives under the radar, with limited public knowledge or understanding.
There are salutary examples of how such technology could be troublingly authoritarian in its usage, and China offers some of the more extreme precedents. After a spate of toilet paper thefts from public conveniences in a park in Beijing, users were asked to …….