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Navigating Facial Recognition in New Zealand

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As technology advances, privacy and surveillance concerns are becoming more pronounced. In a recent development, a retail company proposed using facial recognition technology in its North Island stores. They are adopting facial recognition technology to provide employees secure access to business premises, improve the customer experience, and check and monitor store stock popularity and layout performance.

However, the use of facial recognition technology in retail environments must be done responsibly, with a commitment to data responsibility principles based on security, privacy, transparency, control, accountability, and integrity to scan and create biometric templates of shoppers, checking them against a watchlist of individuals with a history of harmful behaviours. While this initiative aims to enhance security and deter theft, it has sparked a debate on the ethical implications of such technology.

Dr Kate Bower, an AI regulation specialist at the UTS Human Technology Institute in Australia, compared facial recognition technology with DNA data collection. Unlike standard CCTV cameras that capture video footage, facial recognition technology goes further by capturing biometric data, including various data points from a person’s face to create a unique face print. While this technology offers the ability to identify individuals in a crowd and match them to a database, it also raises significant privacy concerns due to its invasive nature and potential for misuse.

Bower highlighted the potential for wrongful identification, particularly among people of colour. Studies have shown that facial recognition technology is less accurate for individuals with darker skin tones, leading to a higher rate of false accusations. This raises concerns about racial bias and the risk of innocent people being wrongly identified and accused.

Māori data ethicist Dr Karaitiana Taiuru has also voiced concerns about the technology’s accuracy, particularly for Māori and Pacific people, who may be more likely to be falsely accused. He emphasised that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” the system mistakenly identifies an innocent person, leading to distressing situations.

Another concern is the storage of biometric information by private companies. Bower emphasised the importance of knowing where and how this information is stored and the ability to request the deletion of data. Questions also arise about the accessibility of this information to law enforcement agencies, both in New Zealand and overseas.

The issue of children’s data being stored is also troubling. Bower questioned the fairness of capturing and storing children’s biometric information and raised concerns about the long-term implications of such practices.

These concerns highlighted the need for public discussion and oversight of facial recognition technology. Bower urged the public to speak up before this technology becomes more widespread in public spaces. She emphasised the need to consider the implications for us and future generations who may be subjected to constant surveillance.

To address these issues, a retail company has engaged with the Privacy Commissioner and enlisted an independent assessor. The company has affirmed that it will promptly delete all customer images unless they are involved in criminal activities or exhibit aggression, violence, or threats toward employees or customers. Images of offenders will be retained for a maximum of two years, while those aiding offenders will be retained for up to three months. Nevertheless, concerns persist regarding the broader implications of this technology and the possibility of its misuse.

As facial recognition technology expands, it is essential to balance security needs with privacy rights. Public oversight and transparency are crucial to ensure these technologies are used responsibly and ethically. Regulations and guidelines will likely evolve to address concerns such as data protection, consent, and algorithm bias. Collaboration between governments, technology developers, and civil society will be vital to establishing these frameworks. Additionally, ongoing research and dialogue on the ethical implications of facial recognition technology will ensure its responsible use in various contexts.


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