The news that all migrants arriving in small boats at Dover will be tagged with a facial recognition device deserves more attention. What exactly are these gadgets? Do they work properly? What will they be used for?
My first worry is, will they recognise black or dark faces? This is not just a matter of light and dark. It reaches into how the software is normed in the first place. Going right back to when I was training as a teacher in London (long before the internet) I recall doing a survey of a box of reading cards (SRA), supposedly for universal use, and finding that many of the cards were too specific to the dominant culture (ie American, so including baseball sports) to be useful in Southern African primary schools.
At the same time, I also looked at multichoice questions in IQ tests and also found they were too normed on this phony claim to be universal.
Then there were computers
Once computer text applications became widely used in the 1990s, I was eager to use the pictures from clipart. But, alas, nearly all of them were, in those days, of blonde barbie doll type, shaped by American ideas of normal office life.
I had a similar problem with some software alarmingly entitled “Dragon Speaking Naturally” which was supposed to pick up one’s voice peculiarities and make it easier to transcribe from one’s own recordings. But the software was normed on accents too different from my own to be of any use.
I realise that in the two-three decades since these trials of an early adopter, such programmes have improved as has the diversity of clipart. But the lesson I draw is: beware the first versions of new software!
What do you see?
There are real cultural differences in how people identify each other visually.
I used to run classes for immigration officials in Botswana, and one topic in the curriculum involved communication about identity papers. So I usually warmed up the topic by asking the students how they identified people in real life, facially. They often mentioned the ears and the neck. I do not think these would have been the first mentioned in a class of white people or Asians.
Recognition software has to be trained on hundreds of real-life pictures. The first question is were there enough in the sample to include all types of black people?
Africans are more diverse than the rest of the world combined
From DNA science, it is known that there are far more genetic, and so phenotypic, types within the human population of Africa than there are in the whole of the rest of the world. The “Out of Africa” theory is that all the population outside Africa is descended from one small group of migrants at a time when there were many other differentiated tribes, living widely spaced, in Africa.
I have seen this in pictures at the Department of Anthropology at Witwatersrand University (South Africa), photos of facial plaster casts taken by a researcher in the 1920s from all over Africa. They are chary of circulating this more widely thinking it may stir up racial antagonism; but I think this is mistaken. Why can’t we all rejoice in the glorious variety of humankind, especially from our motherland of Africa?
How well can it see me?
So, will these new gadgets fastened on newly arrived migrants at Dover be any use on say, a couple of young males from South Sudan? An article in a Coda Authoritarian newsletter states:
“This effectively means that people without British citizenship who have been convicted of a criminal offence in the UK will have to scan their faces on the watches up to five times a day, with their locations being tracked 24/7. A manual check will be conducted if the photos taken do not match with the person’s biometric facial image.”
Legal safeguards missing
GPS tracking devices, on a heavy band around the ankle, have long been used for tracking those facing criminal trials, as an alternative to keeping them in prison. But this process does now have some legal safeguards protecting the rights of the users. These do not exist for the new wristwatch gadgets. The migrants who must wear these facial recognition watches are now to be classified as foreign criminals if they arrived here by crossing the Channel on an inflatable.
There are two fears about the use of this technology. First the migrants fear that they will be further discriminated against, treated as criminals in fact, as they try to find places to live and work in the UK.
Second there is the fear that the technology will not work as promised. Anyone who has tried the DIY method of taking a screenshot of their face for a passport application will know that it is almost impossible to get it right. The system repeatedly rejects whatever screenshot is offered. One is too dark, another too light. Hair in the way. Take off your glasses. Do not have any other objects in the shot etc., etc.
Won’t this wristwatch software be equally pernickety? The user will have to position the wrist exactly right FIVE times a day, and then transmit the result to a server, probably miles away (in USA?) for comparison with a biometric ID stored on the computer, maybe the first photo taken of the migrant at the Dover office, when the poor individual was still shocked from hours on the Channel waves. I cannot believe that the software will miraculously work perfectly for months. And the Dover migrants will be the guinea pigs for the company that has just won the contract.