It’s now evident in the U.S. that there are pockets within police departments that have demonstrated racial bias. This has resulted in a justified reaction from the public against them. And unlike most other western countries, in the U.S., both the police and many in the public are armed with guns, which tends to make their interactions more lethal.
All societies need a police force because without one anarchy would prevail. Societies establish laws to protect the rights of citizens and we need a police force to enforce those rights. We need to offer our police the best tools possible for them to operate effectively. At the same time, we must build the right checks and balances within our institutions to ensure that rogue elements in law enforcement do not misuse the power that’s entrusted to them to jeopardize the rights of some of the very citizens that they have been chartered to protect.
Facial recognition technology can function as a very effective tool in the hands of an ethical police force. For example, it can help police find lost and kidnapped children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 800,000 children are reported lost each year in the U.S. For parents, losing a child presents an unthinkable nightmare. What rights would parents sacrifice to find their child quickly?
The technology can also help in pre-empting terrorist attacks, reducing domestic violence, solving murders and it can have hundreds of other uses to keep citizens safe and secure.
But as with all technologies, there’s potential for abuse, impinging on the privacy of citizens. None of us want to live in a society where our government spies on us as they do in totalitarian regimes. That’s why I support the ACLU and its aims. The right to privacy in a liberal democracy stands as important as the right to live a safe and secure life.
This balance between privacy and security has been achieved in many western societies in two ways. First, society can impose regulations on how the technology gets used. The recent GDPR legislation in the EU serves as a good example of regulation that delivers an excellent balance between these conflicting rights. We have ensured the GDPR-compliance of our own technology so that all faces and number plates get redacted. Only when an incident occurs, such as a murder in a shopping mall, authorized people using a special code can reverse the redaction to see who was culpable. There are millions of CCTV cameras in many public locations. A GDPR-compliant facial recognition system offers better privacy for citizens than the current systems where everyone can see anything.
Second, society needs to establish independent “watchdogs” that have the muscle to call out and punish rogue behaviour from people in authority contrary to the norms we have set for equal and fair treatment of all citizens.
It makes no sense to defund and get rid of all police as some have suggested. There’s no point in handicapping police in the performance of their duties. Rather, we need to build mechanisms to ensure that these institutions fulfil their purpose. Pockets of discriminatory behaviour should get weeded out through better management of our institutions and by regulating the misuse of all technologies that could potentially harm society.
We don’t have to settle for privacy on one hand and security on the other. We can have both.
Rustom Kanga, co-founder and CEO, iOmniscient Corporation