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Facial Recognition: Is It The End of Strangers?

As Artificial Intelligence gathers momentum and its use becomes more widespread, we again face another technology that has the potential of disrupting human interaction as we know it today. Imagine wearing a device that could recognise faces around you, and link them to their social media accounts, or even other sources of personal data in order to identify them and know whether you have common friends, were in a relationship, have a criminal past or even just to know if a potential blind date is wealthy.

This is how Facial Recognition could change how we relate with people in the future. It’ll be be something similar to Facial recognition software used today by Facebook to identify who you were with in a photo you took, so you can tag them. It could perhaps be coupled with an augmented reality device that is either wearable or easy to carry around. Augmented reality is a technology that alters a person’s perception of their physical surrounding. There are applications of the idea today in the hospitality where restaurants and other public places are recognised as you walk down a street, potentially relating them to a Google database to present you restaurant reviews and menus before you walk in or even choose which to walk in to.

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It is believed facial recognition applications have a potential to be massly adopted. Some may adopt it because of fear, same way some people are uncomfortable today with people who cover their faces in public manifested in bans like those on Muslim burqas. It could become norm to have that sort of capability in public just as it has become expected today for everyone to have a presence online for some sort of social identification. The digital society somewhat expects you to put your identifiable data online because anonymity can no longer be tolerated in the current digital economy. I even imagine adoption driven by social or security concerns, where people may want to know who other guests at a party are or if the friends your child hangs out with, identifies with your ideologies.

The above uses may sound very good and even plausible, but the more sinister uses or abuses could also change our social interaction and public life in general for the worse. Take for example, how easy such facial recognition application would make it for a repressive government to target groups or individuals it doesn’t like? It’ll probably lead to the end of free speech and an unprecedented growth in mass surveillance. Another ill that could potentially emerge is the ease at which your online life will be able to follow you offline. For example, if a teenager were bullied online, that could follow them offline and everywhere they go, because their peers can recognise they were bullied online by a school mate. It’ll make it so easy for people with certain ideologies to be persecuted by others, causing people to move, live, or be in company only with like-minded groups. This could blow marginalisation and human segmentation out of proportion in very negative ways.

Throughout history, people have preferred being anonymous in public, in fact most of us are still anonymous today offline, but that could all potentially change with widespread facial recognition adoption. We will no longer be able to be in any public space without being judged or identified. Because everyone will be able to recognise whom everyone else is, and know quite a bit about them. There’ll be no strangers.

We stand a chance in ensuring facial recognition technology only positively impacts us as its use become increasingly widespread, but that is if governments could and are willing to regulate the technology. Microsoft president, Brad Smith has already called for government regulation on the technology, but many are not so positive that this will happen as most of the regulation will be on how government agencies use it for surveillance and moreover, companies see a lot of profitable use-cases out of the technology. So there might be a lot of pressure from the private sector on Governments not to regulate its use.

N.B:  The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official  position of the African Academic Network on Internet Policy. 

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