Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Editorial | What’s the real deal on facial-recognition cameras?

Published:Wednesday | July 15, 2020 | 12:20 AM

Dr Horace Chang and Major General Antony Anderson, the national security minister and the police chief, respectively, must urgently clear the air on if, or what scale, private citizens are being surveilled with facial recognition, or similar technology, as has been suggested by police officers in Montego Bay. If it is being done, we must also be told whether it is in keeping with the requirements of the law.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in his role as chairman of the National Security Council, also needs to speak on the matter to assure Jamaicans that his Government isn’t attempting an end run around people’s right to privacy and the strictures of the courts.

In recent days, this newspaper has reported on the deployment of facial-recognition cameras and software by Chinese-owned businesses in Montego Bay, St James, in the face of a spate of robberies in which at least two Chinese businessmen were shot dead. The latest case was in March, when Andrew ‘Andy’ Chin was killed, an accompanying security officer injured, and a large sum of money stolen.

We appreciate that in the context of Jamaica’s very high levels of crime – including more than 1,000 homicides annually – and the seeming inability of the authorities to contain the crisis, citizens will be driven to seek private solutions. Indeed, closed-circuit television, widely employed in many countries to survey communities, is being increasingly employed in Jamaica.

But the deployment of artificial intelligence-driven facial-recognition technology takes the matter to another, and highly controversial, order. The system uses algorithms to match a face captured by a camera, even from among a large crowd, against images stored in databases. Matches can be produced in a matter of seconds from a database of hundreds of million.

The system is widely used in China and, increasingly, in the West, by law-enforcement agencies. There are, however, deepening concerns over the system’s potential for colliding with civil liberties and the right to privacy, such as is guaranteed by Jamaica’s Constitution.

Indeed, it was in pursuance of the protection of the latter right that Jamaica’s Constitutional Court last year struck down the Holness administration’s National Identification and Registration Act, which would have created a compulsory database of people’s biometric, biographical, and demographic information, from which would be generated national identification cards, without which residents wouldn’t have been able to do business with the Government or receive benefits from the State. The court held that the law was overreaching – beyond what was an infringement outside of what is “demonstrably justified in free and democratic society”.

While, unlike what was anticipated by Jamaica’s law, databases used in facial-recognition technologies may not, by law, require the compulsory sequestering of biometric information, the wide-scale storage and analysis of people’s information – which is required for the system to be effective, without their knowledge, or right to interrogate what is on file – seems, on the face of it, to cross into the territory the Constitutional Court held to be sacrosanct to privacy.

Moreover, a Data Protection Act, recently passed by Jamaica’s Parliament, sets out a range of mechanisms and procedures that entities, including government agencies, have to institute and abide by when in control of people’s private information. The bars for these are pretty high, which we are not clear that the Montego Bay businesses are ready to meet.

SERIOUS DISCUSSION

It is one thing, however, when private individuals, perhaps in ignorance, do things that may offend the law and infringe on people’s rights. It is quite another when the possible perpetrator is the State, and the situation is as sensitive and potentially dangerous as this one.

A Montego Bay police officer, quoted by this newspaper in the context of the facial-recognition technologies being deployed by private businesses, suggested that the police in that city are able to match those systems.

Law-abiding citizens, that officer said, need not worry about the “intrusive nature” of the cameras available to the constabulary because only footage of “evidentiary value” is kept by the law-enforcement agency. That, though, is his take.

We prefer the assurance of the Constitution and the law, and the protection they offer against overreach by the State, especially from a technology, which, as it evolves, has the capacity to be the 21st century’s Big Brother. It is, in part, this concern by citizens that caused Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Australian Federal Police to drop, or scale down, their planned use of a facial-recognition system by the American firm Clearview AI, a large portion of whose database is scraped from social media sites such as Facebook, often without the knowledge of users.

The bottom line: any such technology should be deployed in accordance with the law and after a serious discussion.