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Tea, buses and elections: 7 uses of facial recognition that sparked debate in 2019

By Umberto Bacchi

TBILISI, Dec 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From identifying voters in Afghanistan to speeding up service for tea lovers in India, the use of facial recognition surged in 2019 with expectations that it will become even more widespread next year, fueling concerns over misuse.

There has been growing global debate over the technology, with supporters saying it can increase security and streamline services, while critics denounce it as intrusive and often inaccurate.

Here are seven uses of facial recognition that sparked discussion around the world in 2019:

1. INDIA – FACE FOR TEA – A popular Indian teahouse chain faced a backlash in November after it rolled out a facial recognition feature at some of its stores to speed-up service and payment for returning clients.

Customers at Chaayos took to social media to complain about the camera technology they said captured images of them without their consent, with no information on what the data would be used for, and no clear option to opt out.

Chaayos said data was encrypted, would not be shared, and customers could choose to opt out, but the incident led to calls from human rights advocates for the government to speed up the introduction of laws to protect privacy.

2. BRITAIN – MALLS AND MUSEUM – In August, revelations that a property developer in London’s King’s Cross area used facial recognition surveillance cameras triggered a public backlash and an investigation by Britain’s data protection watchdog.

It later emerged that a Sheffield mall and a Liverpool museum had also trialed the technology in cooperation with police..

Civil liberties group described the trend as a nationwide “epidemic.”

3. UNITED STATES – POLICE NO MORE – In May, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the purchase and use of facial recognition by city personnel, including police.

The action reflected growing discontent in the United States over the technology, which government agencies have used for years and now has become more powerful with the rise of cloud computing and artificial intelligence technologies.

Oakland and Berkeley in California and Somerville, in Massachusetts, have since put in place similar regulations.

4. AFGHANISTAN – UNVEILED VOTE – Afghan authorities photographed all voters in September’s presidential election, using facial recognition software as an anti-fraud measure, after elections in 2009 and 2014 ended in disputes over rampant ballot stuffing.

But women’s rights campaigners complained the photo requirement was likely to prevent large numbers of women from voting, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home.

Ahead of the vote, the election commission said women could have had their pictures taken by female election staff, but acknowledged that at least 1,450 of the nearly 30,000 polling stations employed no women.

5. CHINA – INTRUSIVE WILDLIFE – In October, a law professor in China took a wildlife park in Hangzhou to court after it deployed facial recognition at the entrance, requiring members submit a face scan to access to the site, local media reported.

The professor argued the data collection was unnecessary and violated his consumer rights, in a lawsuit said to be the first of its kind in China.

The case triggered a debate over use the technology which is increasingly widespread across the country, where it is used by authorities as well as a growing number of private institutions, including schools, hotels and gyms.

6. KAZAKHSTAN – BUS RIDE – A facial recognition app allowing commuters to pay for a bus ride with a scan of their face instead of purchasing a ticket was trialed in Kazakhstan capital of Nur-Sultan in October, local media reported.

Right activists and some users complained the system was intrusive and could lead to extra surveillance.

7. WORLD – SPEEDY BOARDING – In April, U.S. authorities’ use of facial to verify the identity of travelers entering and leaving the country hit national attention after a tweet by a traveler questioning the practice went viral.

Run in partnership with air and cruise lines, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pilot program aims to enhance security and speed up custom controls but has drawn criticism from human rights groups.

Whether to speed up boarding or boost security, facial recognition is being rolled out at airports in numerous other countries, including India, Singapore, Britain and the Netherlands. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi //