UN human rights organization wants moratorium on facial recognition and biometric technology

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Governments should impose a moratorium on the use of biometric recognition technology in public spaces, recommended a new report released on September 15 by the United Nations Office of Human Rights. The use of AI for remote biometric recognition interferes with international human rights to privacy, freedom of movement and expression, according to the report.

In a press release announcing the report, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said:

We can’t afford to continue to catch up with AI – allowing its use with limited or no limits or oversight, and dealing with the almost inevitable human rights consequences after the fact.[…]We must act now to put human rights safeguards against the use of AI, for the good of all.

Regardless of the threat to citizens’ rights, Indian state governments are already rushing to implement facial recognition technology, most recently in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The new UN report could be the key to starting a conversation about stopping the deployment of such AI applications until the right legislative frameworks are in place.

Biometric recognition in public threatens human rights: UN

States should wait to deploy biometric recognition in public spaces until they demonstrate that 1) they comply with privacy and data protection standards and 2) issues of accuracy and bias have occurred. been resolved, recommended the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In its report, the United Nations body highlighted the following concerns regarding the use of AI for biometric recognition in public spaces:

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  • Bias and error: The report acknowledges that biometric recognition is riddled with bias and inaccuracies. This could lead to the misidentification of individuals, affecting certain groups disproportionately.
  • Profiling: Such tools could allow governments to profile people based on their race, gender, ethnic or national origin, which the report found concerning in terms of international human rights.
  • Right to privacy: A person’s biometric information reveals unique characteristics that set them apart from other people. Using this information for real-time identification is a threat to the right to privacy, says the report.
  • Freedom of movement and expression: Remote biometric recognition dramatically improves the ability of states to track individuals, compromising their ability to exist in unobserved public spaces. This, the report points out, interferes with freedom of expression, movement and peaceful assembly.
  • Emotional recognition: The report also takes note of predictive biometrics which identifies security threats by inferring mental states based on facial expressions. Such a prediction lacks a scientific basis, and the use of this technology by public authorities threatens the right to privacy and a fair trial, according to the report.

Real-time facial recognition technology used in India

Several Indian states have already started acquiring equipment and implementing remote biometric recognition:

  • Uttar Pradesh: The UP government plans to install 700 AI-based CCTV cameras and 100 facial recognition cameras in Lucknow to detect suspicious activity, an exclusive MediaNama report has revealed.
  • Meghalaya: The Meghalaya government released an app in August that uses facial recognition to check if retirees are alive to receive their next installments.
  • Delhi: Delhi police had used their facial recognition system to track down 1,100 people behind riots in Delhi in February, Union Home Secretary Amit Shah told Lok Sabha in March 2020.

Outside of the States, central government authorities in India are using or planning to use facial recognition technology nationwide for specific purposes:

  • Examination rooms: The National Testing Agency (NTA) has proposed the installation of CCTV cameras in 4,000 examination centers coupled with mandatory biometric verification such as iris and fingerprint scans as well as facial scans.
  • Railway stations: Indian Railways had decided to install CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition in 983 stations across the country. The technology has been implemented in 310 stations so far, the Minister of Informatics informed in August of this year.

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