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Face the Facts

I was not an early adopter of the smart phone. Being older, when the opportunity finally rose for me to turn in my flip phone once and for all, I was beyond hesitant. My wife, who is a lot younger than I am, embraces technology and change much better and is constantly surrounded by technology but I like to keep things simpler with a pile of notebooks and pre-sharpened pencils covering my desk.

With that said, I have evolved over the last several years and I believe in the power of technology and what it can do for homeland security and emergency management as long as we do not rely on the tech to the point where we have lost our own minds. After all, there is no app that adds 35 years of experience to decision making during a hurricane nor is there an app out there that manages human resources while under the duress of disaster response. I am still a “people person” and believe in human gifting and talent.

When tech arises that surpasses what we can humanly accomplish and lives are at stake, the story changes drastically and I may now be one of the first to embrace it. Recently, the tracking being done of immigrants coming across the border is all automated and I will admit that there is no way we could have done this twenty years ago with ledger pads and pens. In the last week, Amber Alerts and even Blue Alerts have saved lives in my own home state so I get it… the need for us to advance in technology is definitely there and rarely would anyone argue.

If you do want to start an argument, there is a subject that I know will raise the hair on the back of many a neck and that subject is facial recognition. The controversy over facial recognition is growing each and every day despite the history of its use. Think about it. In the middle of the 1800’s, wanted posters littered the west describing gunslingers and train robbers, but what got them caught was the picture on the poster. Facial recognition.

Facial recognition has now become a part of mainstream life. I take a picture of my family and FaceBook automatically zeroes in on each child, tags them by name and even will make a suggestion of who to send the picture to based on facial recognition. The new camera on my phone actually maps faces in order to make them clearer for recognition before I ever go to social media. We see it work without thinking about it every day. We unlock our mobile devices using this tech and we enjoy it because it is efficient, authentic and simple. When the same tech is used by law enforcement, organizations crawl out of the woodwork like carpenter ants screaming about civil rights.

Because of the screaming and protesting, tech powerhouses such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM have begun changing their policies and stances on the further development of this technology as they wait for the loudest population (not the majority) to govern what they do next.

We live in a social-political climate where the screamers are indeed governing how efficient we can be at our jobs in homeland security, emergency management and law enforcement. A bad shooting leads to riots which leads to rallies which leads to elections which leads to defunding entire departments. Facial recognition could very well be the next big stage. It is already happening. The use of facial recognition for law enforcement purposes was recently deemed unlawful in the UK, with the Court of Appeal declaring that the technology violates human rights, data protection laws, and equality laws.

The topic is also expected to be debated in the European Parliament, with policymakers being asked to ban the use of facial recognition as a biometric mass surveillance tool.

Wherever it’s being used, facial recognition is likely to attract a lot of attention. I believe that we will see this battle grow to a war before the year’s end as outnumbered law enforcement agencies on every level lean back on technology for help and their adversaries realize that if they can attack the technology, they disarm the law.

Facial recognition has many benefits in society, including increasing safety and security, preventing crimes, and reducing human interaction. You can argue that all you want, but the facts are the facts. If I had a camera that would recognize a bank robber, I would use that camera in every bank. So would you.

I recently met a woman in Dallas who was under great duress. I approached her and asked if there was any way that I could help. Weeping she told me that her daughter had been missing for days and there had been no word from law enforcement. As I sat with her, holding her hand, she received a phone call. Her daughter had just come out of a coma she had been in for three days following a terrible car accident. With no I.D. on her person at the time of the wreck, the hospital had been treating a Jane Doe with no knowledge of past medical history while her family writhed in anguish. Facial recognition could have changed everything.

A short Google search will prove that facial recognition technologies and software finds missing people, missing children and even abducted children. All good stuff. The technology can even be used on old and cold cases for people that have been missing years and even decades. Every human face is so unique, it is what makes us human and what allows for us to start and build relationships.

So, that camera I wanted in my bank? It does exist. Business owners use facial recognition software and security cameras to identify known or suspected thieves as they enter their stores. Utilizing this ability can be the ultimate deterrent to crime before it is committed.

Think about how you feel when on a plane. Facial recognition is used as a regular part of airport screening. Doesn’t it make you feel safer knowing that everything has been done to avoid allowing a recognizable terrorist aboard your flight? Now all you have to do is worry about that unruly passenger that refuses to wear a mask…

While wanted posters are super cool, they did not work as well as everyone always hoped. Grainy images were often the best they had and many posters featured hand drawn pictures of the suspect or felon. It is unknown how many vigilantes strung up the wrong guy because of a poor drawing, poor picture or bad printing machine. Simple facial recognition requires fewer human resources than other types of security measures, such as fingerprinting. It also doesn’t require physical contact or direct human interaction. Instead, it uses AI to make it an automatic and seamless process.

I recently read an article on the use of facial recognition to detect genetic disorders as the technology can examine physical traits and determine certain diseases and syndromes. It turns out this is much faster and much more affordable making early detection easier. Who knew?

See, facial recognition has some real positive value, especially in a society where liability is an issue, touching less is more important, efficiency and cost are under scrutiny and where we expect immediate results from those we under-fund but place in charge of our security and well-being.

To not be unfair, I will admit that there are some risks with the AI. It does threaten your privacy, but the level of threat is based on who uses the tech and how the data is transferred or dispersed. If Walmart is using the tech and sells my coming and going to someone, I have been violated.

People do not like having their faces recorded and stored in a database for unknown future use. It causes a paranoia that is fueled by the media, television shows and general popular conspiracy theory reckoning.

Whether we like it or not, AI will continue to be developed and perhaps someday our use of it all may resemble the television show “Person of Interest” (2011-2016), but right now, the use of facial recognition is a pretty volatile topic despite still being under development.

Privacy is such a big issue that some cities, including San Francisco, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have banned law enforcment's use of real-time facial recognition surveillance. In these cases, police can use video recordings from personally owned security video devices, but they can’t use live facial recognition software.

Being recorded and scanned by facial recognition technology can make people feel like they’re always being watched and judged for their behavior. Plus, police can use facial recognition to run everyone in their database through a virtual criminal lineup, which understandably can make you feel like you are being treated as a criminal suspect without probably cause.

It doesn’t help matters that facial recognition became famous because countries with limited personal freedoms, such as China, UAE, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, commonly use facial recognition to spy on citizens and arrest those deemed troublemakers. It certainly can be an instrument of control if used in this manner.

Lately, my concerns about facial recognition stem from recent hacking events. While I personally do not have issues with most uses of facial recognition for homeland security, emergency management or law enforcement use, I am concerned as to the vulnerability of the information and where it is stored as there seems to not be safe method of storing data, especially large amounts.

The real concern should not be whether or not law enforcement has the right to monitor our activities such as at border crossings, during riots or at the airport, but rather who else has this technology and why is it legal for non-law enforcement to use it? Crimes perpetrated via cyber means move much faster than normal crimes and the widespread use of ungoverned AI like facial recognition has already opened the doors for stalkers, cyber stalkers, identity thiefs and traffickers.

Let’s go back to my last statement. Riots. Airports. Borders.

With current breaches in our homeland security with the physical influx of thousands from hundreds of countries, we have become more vulnerable to an inner attack than ever before. While we have data bases of terrorists and radicals, those lists do us very little without the ability to use facial recognition as often as possible. With proper oversight and regulation, this technology could very well be the only defense we have against an attack within our own boundaries.

We do not have a perfect system, and there will always be the misuse or abuse of things like facial recognition and drones, but is this not the same as rifles and handguns? It all depends on whose hands they are in, how we regulate who had access and how they are used.

While there is a large group out there that would argue every point I am making, take a quick look at their mouthpieces and leaders who tout complete gun control while being protected by armed service members, speak at rallies and conventions where facial recognition is used at every entrance and where every event they attend is protected overhead by drone surveillance.

Call it all a necessary evil, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater before you think it through. I have no idea who that is standing next to my family at the fireworks nor if they came to the park alone, but they just walked away from their backpack…

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