Every time any of us goes online — which is pretty much every waking moment for a lot of people — we are annoyingly asked whether we consent to receive the website’s cookies.
Cookies, I think, are files that send a little message which the website leaves on your device to make it easier to recognise who you are when you visit again.
There are reasons why we might want cookies: they make it easier for pages to reload; it stops us from having to log in to sites every time we visit them. I’m sure there are more. The European Union insisted such data collection shouldn’t happen without our authorisation.
Seems fair. It’s just the EU rules mean we must manoeuvre past messages that annoyingly, if momentarily, delay us getting where we want to go.
One thing that speeds up access to some sites and apps is facial recognition. Now that masks are gone, I can open my phone just by looking at it.
My bank recognises who I am, which saves me having to enter lots of numbers, and the bankcard on the phone is a lot more secure than a regular card. My phone can distinguish between photos of each of my children and files them in different folders. Facial recognition technology works.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee has proposed to bring legislation to Cabinet in the form of a Garda Síochána (Recording Devices) Bill, which would give gardaí legal grounds to use facial recognition in major investigations for murder, missing persons and child sexual abuse.
The aim is to help speed up how they sift through CCTV footage. It makes some sense. Why do it manually if a machine can do it much faster? But not everyone is happy.
As was revealed in last week’s Sunday Independent, Green Party ministers and Stephen Donnelly have civil liberties concerns. McEntee has been instructed to proceed, but Cabinet might not merely wave through the bill when she comes back with it.
Why all this pearl clutching over facial recognition for serious crime? Well, unlike cookies you can’t opt out of having your face added to a database (though there’s a good chance you’ve already voluntarily uploaded your face through some app that amused you for seven seconds when it gave you rabbit teeth or something equally hilarious). You can switch off face recognition on your phone, but the State will have you on a database forever.
It will be easier for governments to use this data without you even knowing it. For some in the industry that is a benefit: the face has a significantly better potential to recognise the identity in a non-intrusive manner.
But non-intrusive means I can’t give my consent to being photographed and the data being retained as I walk down the street.
A lot depends on how it is used.
While the technology is impressive and improving all the time, it is usually based on having clean photos of you and comparing that to your face, like you have in a passport machine at an airport. But with ‘in the wild’ images, such as on CCTV, facial recognition still makes a lot of mistakes.
We’re wearing glasses, the face is partially hidden, we have different poses or expressions and the technology struggles to make accurate matches.
Because much of the testing and machine learning was on white men, the technology is worse at recognising women or black men, and worse again on young black women. If used for law enforcement, where there are already concerns of racism, this could exacerbate it.
McEntee will no doubt argue that facial recognition technology is not going to be used to convict, just to speed up detection. But for many, the knowledge that you have been questioned for a serious crime might have a big impact on someone’s life and reputation, even if ultimately no charges are brought.
Still, the Irish Government isn’t like the US or Chinese governments. We don’t think the gardaí are institutionally racist. We won’t expect photo evidence to catch people doing minor infractions to keep some sort of social credit score on us.
Perhaps that’s the problem. While there is broad trust in An Garda Síochána, one scandal with this technology could destroy that. We also know Ireland has a significant and increasing problem of low-level anti-social behaviour.
O’Connell Street and the north inner city has become feral as gangs of kids go around abusing passers-by. It hasn’t become a political issue — yet.
Arguably, it’s a bigger problem than just the garda response. A society that puts up with widespread violent and threatening behaviour has itself to blame — we don’t expect each of us to respect the law and treat each other well merely because we might be caught by the gardaí. But it might help if there was a chance gardaí were around when we see anti-social behaviour.
When a number of teenagers were seen attacking girls getting on a Dart, it was CCTV that helped secure their convictions. But it was the fact that footage was seen on social media which forced gardaí to investigate the type of behaviour that happens every night in cities and towns across Ireland.
We didn’t need facial recognition software. A little bit of political pressure was all that was needed.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and public policy at Dublin City University