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Facial recognition technology: What would George Orwell say?

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

This coming June, British author George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” marks the 70th anniversary of its publication. In the United States, Penguin has announced plans for a special 75,000-copy reprint. According to The New York Times, the publisher noted that, sales of the novel have increased by 9,500 percent since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Demonstrating remarkable foresight, Orwell envisaged a terrifying future in which a “Big Brother” government would harness tools to watch each and every one of us. When Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist, wanted to meet his illicit lover, he was forced to take extreme measures to avoid a two-way device called a “telescreen,” described as follows:

“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.”

For some years now, high-resolution, low-light cameras have been observing us passively on the street, at railway stations, at airports, in office buildings and in shops.

Since our faces — essentially the face of every human on the planet — are as uniquely individualistic as fingerprints, facial recognition technology means you are no longer a member of the faceless masses. Privacy ends the moment you step outside the door of your home. What sort of future awaits us, Spa! (Jan. 15-22) wants to know: innovation or dystopia?

Certainly law enforcement and security organizations armed with facial recognition technology have an added advantage in spotting known terrorists, international criminals and fugitives on the run.

One of the world’s leaders in facial recognition technology, Japan’s NEC Corp., claims a recognition accuracy of close to 100 percent. Its system is claimed to be capable of recognizing even a subject who uses face paint to alter a portion of his or her appearance.

Adoption of an NEC system in Surat, a major metropolis in northwestern India, has reportedly contributed to a 27 percent fall in crime in that city.

With governments and the private sector jumping on the bandwagon, U.K.-based MarketsandMarkets Research Private Ltd. predicts that demand for facial recognition hardware and software will double from the present size by 2022, reaching the equivalent of ¥857 billion in annual revenue.

Not everything related to facial recognition need be viewed as ominous — far from it. Yasuhiro Tsuchida, chief technology officer at AI Tokyo Lab, told Spa! that its various applications will advance the ongoing trend toward a cashless society and raise the accuracy of so-called one-to-one marketing. Imagine walking into a store and, upon being recognized as an established customer, being rewarded with a discount coupon.

“This sort of ‘one-to-one marketing’ is likely to inspire business operators to come up with numerous types of incentives,” Tsuchida says.

That said, issues such as individual privacy and human rights are likely to remain a serious concern.

“The various images used to develop the facial image database can come from items such as a passport or driver’s license,” attorney Hiroaki Muto says. “Presently, even without a court order, those can be provided to the police from various sources, including government ministries, public security offices or local governments. In other words, in order to identify and arrest a suspect, the police have already been relieved of the limitations of facial recognition applications, opening up the possibility of creating a system of excessive surveillance.

“While such a system may offer benefits in terms of crime prevention or commercial uses, it’s best that citizens first be made to understand the merits and demerits, and then arrive at an acceptable formula,” Muto says.

Criminologist Nobuo Komiya, a professor at Rissho University, says police maintain two schools of thought toward facial recognition: the technocrats, who support the system, and the suspicious. Those of the latter school remain convinced that the instincts of a trained detective are still superior to artificial intelligence.

More Japanese have been looking to China, whose government has been putting facial recognition to work to deter crime and “anti-social behavior.” In her “Report from China” in Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 19), writer Konatsu Himeda reviews Shanghai’s ubiquitous monitor cameras, which were initially installed around the city as an anti-terrorist measure.

On social media, exchanges can be found in which one poster asks, “Is there any way to avoid them?”

“How about wearing a surgical mask?” one person suggests. “No, the only way is to apply Peking opera facial makeup,” another replies.

Such efforts to avoid detection, however, are probably futile since it’s possible that data stored in the system may also include approximations of what an individual might look like in cases when his or her facial characteristics are purposely altered.

I sent an email to a contact in the Chinese police about how facial recognition is being used and was told: “In some cities, when someone violates traffic rules like jaywalking, an electronic camera can take a snapshot of his or her face. This will get posted on the news.”

A link to such a site showed the photos of faces of jaywalkers in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, displayed together with the individuals’ full names, identification card numbers (with five digits blanked out), location of the violation and the date.

Is it worth the effort to shame jaywalkers publically? Certainly Japan boasts the same technical capabilities and new developments can be expected in the near future.

“I suppose the Tokyo Olympiad and Osaka World Expo, which can expect large numbers of visitors, will see wider adoption of public safety systems,” Jonggi Ha, editor of Roboteer magazine, predicts in Spa! “In Osaka, one of the Expo’s main themes will be artificial intelligence, so over the next six years hopefully we will see a legal framework developed for facial recognition technology.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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