Sat, Jun 02, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Invasive technology requires neutrality

By Chang Hsun-ching 張勳慶

The Taipei City Government has installed four “smart” street lamps featuring facial recognition along Jiankang Road to make it easier to gather statistics on pedestrian flow.

The city on May 23 said that as the method has proved effective, it has decided to install 12,600 such lights in certain areas in Taipei and more across the city each year.

In other words, Big Brother is coming to Taipei. This reminds us of China’s “Skynet Project,” the world’s biggest camera surveillance network.

In response to public concern, the city said that access to and storage of facial recognition data provided by smart street lights will be handled “in accordance with existing legislation.”

The first question facing the city is: Could it not use the omnipresent surveillance cameras to analyze pedestrian flow?

From confidential information on computers to files from the National Police Agency’s archives, we often hear stories of civil servants misusing such data for private purposes.

Once street lamps are given facial recognition functionality, are there neutral standards for the consultation and transfer of data, and their deletion when they are no longer needed?

Local governments could take advantage of the function during election campaigns or street protests and it is hard to believe that they would strictly abide by the principle of administrative neutrality.

At a time when many smartphones are equipped with facial recognition, it is reasonable to anticipate that such products will soon become ubiquitous, as the related technologies and systems continue to develop.

If street lamps are equipped with facial recognition, that would help solve missing person cases and major crimes. It could also help protect the elderly in an aging society and safeguard children.

The technology could be used at primary and secondary schools as to send notifications to parents whenever their kids leave school. It could be applied at bus and train stations or airports nationwide to prevent criminals from escaping.

Looking at it from this perspective, it seems likely that products featuring facial recognition will be widely adopted in cities — and just like their attitude toward surveillance cameras, the public might resist them at first, but find they have no choice but to accept them.

Such functionality could even be integrated with payment and personal identification methods. If someone has money in their account, they could pay or execute transactions simply by scanning their face.

The problem is: Will the government’s capability to prevent hacking be strong enough?

As the government gradually turns into George Orwell’s authoritarian Big Brother, is the legislative branch prepared for this by drafting better laws to protect human rights, including compensation for victims and punishments for misconduct by civil servants?

It appears that the faster today’s electronics develop, the more our safeguards should be bolstered, including domestic legislation, e-finance and people’s rational attitude toward the technology.

However, what is necessary first and foremost is an unnegotiable spirit of and insistence on administrative neutrality.

Chang Hsun-ching is a freelancer.

Translated by Eddy Chang

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