The Ministry of Transportation and Communications’ Railway Bureau last month trialed a surveillance system with facial recognition technology, intended to increase passenger security, at Fengyuan Railway Station in Taichung. It promptly identified a fugitive after running a filtered search through a list of wanted criminals in a vast facial information database.
The incident gave rise to human rights and privacy concerns, and on Nov. 6, the agency announced that it would suspend use of the facial recognition system due to concerns over its legality.
The matter shares striking similarities with the deployment in August last year in Taipei of street lights outfitted with facial recognition technology, which laid bare regulatory and social communication issues over smart applications.
What is essentially a beneficial technology is deeply problematic given the lack of precise and targeted legislation, and this is the fault not of civil servants, but their politically appointed masters. Something needs to be done to address this.
Facial recognition technology is one of the most impressive expressions of the field of artificial intelligence applications. A large component of this technology is based upon digital image processing.
Before long, a whole range of smart city applications are to come to maturity and be implemented. As a result, it is of paramount importance that Taiwan clarifies the issues surrounding personal data protections.
IBM’s Web site says that it is unnecessary to completely ban the application of facial recognition technology, as long as “precision regulation” is used.
The IBM Policy Lab has said that policymakers must implement precision regulation targeted at specific surveillance applications to ensure that they are appropriately controlled.
A ruling on Oct. 23 in Germany, known for its stringent personal date privacy regulations, provides a cautionary tale.
The Administrative Court of Hamburg was ruling on a matter brought by the senator of the interior of Hamburg against an administrative order by the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information. The court ruled in favor of the senator and required Hamburg police to erase a biometric database amassed during the G20 summit in July 2017.
However, Hamburg police contested the ruling, arguing that they needed to keep the data intact to study the behavioral models of left-wing extremists.
At that G20 summit, shocking pictures of protesters from around the world clashing with police in Hamburg made the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
The case hinged on Article 48 of Germany’s Federal Data Protection Act. Was there a legal basis for the police to retain the database?
The court seemed to be of the impression that the general clause of the article, which says that “the processing of special categories of personal data shall be allowed only where strictly necessary for the performance of the controller’s tasks,” gives adequate provision.
This interpretation stirred up a heated debate in Germany over private data protection concerns for the people not involved in the rioting that were just going about their business in a public space.
This case demonstrates that data protection laws would not necessarily be an obstacle to the use of private data, and need to be the basis for the discussion of how technology and people’s lives intersect. Taiwan needs to have a dialogue on the issue of private data protections.
Liao Wei-min is an associate professor at National Chung Hsing University’s Department of Law.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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