Commentary: Biometrics enhance security and convenience but can have malign uses

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Otherwise, worries will grow that we are sleepwalking towards a surveillance state.

The most glaring concern about the use of such data is how it strengthens surveillance capabilities in ways with no accountability, most notably in China which rigorously monitors its own population and exports “digital authoritarianism”.

A 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found artificial intelligence-enabled surveillance technology was being used in at least 75 of the 176 countries it studied.

China was the biggest supplier of such technology, selling to 63 countries, while US companies sold to 32 countries.

But the use of biometric data is also being enthusiastically adopted by the private sector in workplaces, shops and schools around the world. It is used to verify the identity of taxi drivers, hire employees, monitor factory workers, flag shoplifters and speed up queues for school meals.

A powerful case for why politicians need to act now to create a stronger legal framework for biometric technologies has been made by the barrister Matthew Ryder in an independent report published this week. (For disclosure: the report was commissioned by the Ada Lovelace Institute and I am on the charity’s board.)

Until that comes into force, Ryder has called for a moratorium on the use of live facial recognition technology. Similar calls have been made by British parliamentarians and US legislators without prompting much response from national governments.

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