Before You Buy Into Biometrics: An Activist’s Perspective

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Written by Miles Cox

Staff Writer

With the buzz of the IPhone X announcement coming out in early September, our ongoing voyage to the realms of sci-fi seems to be picking up pace at a great rate. But, before anyone can get too excited about OLED screens and tougher glass, the spotlight is on FaceID. For better, or worse.

FaceID is a new system of biometrics, in which the front-facing camera of your phone may scan your face for up to 30,000 pixel-like points to create a depth map of your face. Such a map can then be used as a personalized passcode, similar to the current TouchID.  But, with great cyberpunk power, comes great cyberpunk responsibility. Are facial recognition biometrics really the safest passcodes you can be using? Is it really appropriate to link your credit card to this system so you can, as Apple states, “Pay with your face”?

To start, the use of facial recognition is a shaky subject on it’s own. According to the University of Washington, facial recognition software cannot yet detect the same person at different angles or ages. There is also an underlying factor of race, in which MIT created a report establishing that such measures are less accurate with black users. So, your face might not be the best way to pay for things right now, seeing how fickle the system is, even when compared to the notoriously persnickety TouchID.  

With that in mind, what about those who use their phone as a tool to protect those who cannot protect themselves? In a society where we are aptly able to state that police brutality is on the rise, civilians have taken to using their phones to document stops, assaults, and other conflicts with third parties. But, even those who record these incidents are often arrested. Those who filmed the assaults of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and even  Philando Castile have since been arrested on the basis of the contents of their phone.

So, for allies and political activists, is the FaceID the way of the future? In short, no.

With all this grey legality regarding the contents of your phone, it’s pertinent to say that the ACLU, as well as some state governments,  has claimed that the filming of officers is a protected act under the first amendment. But the question remains, is it legal for an officer to force you to unlock your phone? Well, it depends on how you’ve locked up your phone.

Phones locked with classic PIN numbers and passcodes are protected under the fifth amendment, as you have a right to protect yourself from self incrimination by giving such information to the police. However, the law has not yet evolved to include the protection of biometric locks, since we’re applying precedent that existed long before the recent technological boom. Recent cases across states have determined the legality of forcibly obtaining fingerprint data, implying some grim truths about facial recognition and the current established laws.

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