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The End of Anonymity?

Facial recognition cameras are increasingly being used for control purposes. Researchers have studied how people in different parts of the world view this trend.

Feb 24, 2020

Fans of the Karlsruher SC soccer team used paper plates to foil attempts to identify a test subject within a large group of people back in 2011.

Fans of the Karlsruher SC soccer team used paper plates to foil attempts to identify a test subject within a large group of people back in 2011.
Image Credit: Picture-Alliance/dpa

They already come standard in the latest smartphone models: cameras that can recognize faces. In public spaces, too, facial recognition technologies (FRTs) are increasingly in use. Surveillance cameras equipped with FRT are being rolled out to help police track down criminals, for example, by automatically comparing the faces of people passing by against photos of criminals from databases. But these technologies are also being used in the business sector. A software program is currently being developed to scan the faces of customers inside a store and match them up with their profiles on social media. Soon, those who linger over a certain product at a retail store could start receiving digital ads for that product as a result.

Whether and how the use of FRTs in public should be allowed is a hotly debated topic in Germany and across Europe. Right now there is debate about a temporary moratorium in the European Union, which could apply for as long as five years. “But there is a lot of variation in how people view this around the world,” says Genia Kostka. “In China, for example, many people see this as a positive development.”

Skepticism is Greatest in Germany

Kostka is a professor of Chinese studies at Freie Universität and an expert on China’s digital policies. Together with Miriam Meckel and Léa Steinacker, media entrepreneurs and communication scholars at the University of St. Gallen, she has studied how FRTs are perceived and viewed in different parts of the world. For their study, “Facing the public: Analysis of citizen attitudes about facial recognition technologies,” about 6,500 people in Germany, the UK, the United States, and China were asked about their opinions.

“Germans are the most skeptical of these groups,” Kostka says. “In this country, only 38 percent of people welcome or accept the use of this technology.” China has the highest acceptance rate, by contrast, with 67 percent of respondents there being open to the use of FRTs. The United States (47 percent acceptance) and the United Kingdom (50 percent acceptance) fall in between. Kostka believes the greater acceptance found in China is due primarily to the fact that people in China are already used to FRTs.

“Smile to Pay”

About 78 percent of the Chinese people surveyed had already consciously come into contact with FRTs in the past, compared with only 45 percent in Germany. “Digital facial recognition has been a fixture of everyday life in China for a long time now,” Kostka explains. For example, Alipay, the payment service operated by Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, just recently introduced a feature called “Smile to Pay.” “All you have to do to pay at a store is smile into the camera at the cash register,” Kostka says.

“Many Chinese people view FRTs as mainly offering more convenience and efficiency.” Security is another important factor there. “The technology is also viewed as a tool for establishing and maintaining order in society,” Kostka says. Many people in China hope that digital surveillance technology will help in the fight against corruption in government and the business sector. “That hope is also bolstered by government propaganda,” says Kostka. “What the media doesn’t mention is that the same surveillance technology is also being used against citizens.” Discussions of protecting people’s privacy are not a major factor in China at this time. “Resignation may be a part of it,” Kostka says.

Hopes for Social Order and Stability

“Many people have the impression that they are helpless against government surveillance anyway.” In Germany, by contrast, the misgivings about the technology are clear: Just under 22 percent of those surveyed opposed the use of FRTs. One surprising finding of the study was that there are significant differences between the east and west of the country. The average degree of strong opposition is significantly higher in western Germany, at 15 percent, than the nine percent registered in the east, Kostka says: “Instead of saying, ‘surveillance state – we don’t want that ever again!’ many of those who live in the east of Germany hope that facial recognition technology might bring more social order and stability.”

This text originally appeared in German on February 15, 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.