Using facial recognition technology for mass surveillance and the fight against common crimes implies that it has to contradict the legal principle of presumption of innocence in favor of a totalitarian system and the control of the public space.

In September 2021, the portal “América Trasparente” published a report written by María Fernanda Leiva and Tamara Silva, denouncing a millionaire investment made by two municipalities in the eastern sector of the city of Santiago de Chile for a facial recognition system that does not work.

In total, the investigation records the payment of USD $582,880 (approximately 390 million Chilean pesos) for the software of the French company INDEMIA, one of the main providers of this technology in the region. The district of Las Condes would have contributed USD $517,880 and Lo Barnechea USD $65,000.

Each district currently has ten surveillance cameras connected to the INDEMIA software. According to the information collected by Leiva and Silva, as of December 2020, one year after its implementation, the system would have recognized ten possible suspects. Apparently, the pandemic would have an impact on the modest results of the system, quoted in the report, the mayor of Lo Barnechea says that due to the "massive use of masks since March 2020, the necessary conditions to evaluate the effectiveness of facial recognition cameras have not been there”.

The report also establishes that the contract would have been created through a direct award, signed by the Association of Municipalities for Citizen Security of the Eastern Zone (AMSZO), an entity that is being questioned for handling billions of pesos without any control or inspection.

Up to that point, the report is interesting because it contains all the elements of the controversies surrounding the implementation of facial recognition technologies in the region: systems incapable of doing what is expected of them, little transparency regarding the contracting processes, the inexistence of adequate evaluation mechanism and not to mention human rights impact assessments.

In addition, it touches on a central point that is usually left out of the discourse of manufacturers and politicians eager for public recognition: facial recognition technologies are not magical and require certain conditions that allow adequate captures to be made to compare faces; Questions as basic as the location of the camera or whether the person wears a hat or glasses can alter the effectiveness of the system, which can result in the system simply not being able to recognize or recognizing wrongly.

And yet, the question that seems to me most important to ask is this: would it be preferable if the system worked? Would we be talking about it if instead of 10 people the system had recognized 100 or 10 thousand? I do not want to minimize the importance of the concept of transparency, especially with regard to the spending of public funds and even more when it has been spent on something that does not work. But what seems more serious here is that two districts have decided to omit any debate regarding the legality of implementing a system of these characteristics, which also cannot be separated from a discussion on human rights.

In Chile, the current law on personal data, in its article 10, prohibits the processing of sensitive data, unless it is authorized by law or there is consent from the owner. It is clear that the creation of a massive surveillance infrastructure is not considered in this list and, therefore, is illegal. Thus, any intention in that direction should be channeled through a legislative discussion regarding whether as a society we agree with the development of this type of technology in the public space. In that sense, there are not a few districts and cities around the world that have answered that question with a ban.

Using facial recognition technology for mass surveillance and the fight against common crimes implies contradicting the principle of presumption of innocence in favor of a totalitarian system and the control of the public space. Through the technical management of our identity and through the loss of control and autonomy over our faces, it can be used against our interests. Is that the society we want to live in?

Even if the answer to that question is yes, the legislative discussion makes it possible to establish limits and controls regarding its uses, as well as the list of pre- and post-implementation requirements that must be met. It cannot be a matter left to the discretion and available resources of a public authority. Even more when we have seen that the implementation of this type of technology, despite presenting low results in terms of public security, can indeed constitute an effective political marketing technique. The best example of this in Chile is precisely the former mayor of Las Condes, Joaquín Lavín, as he demonstrated in his most recent (and unsuccessful) presidential incursion.

We cannot continue allowing these discussions to be carried out through pretexts, appealing to gray areas or simply ignoring the law. We need to respond from a democratic conviction and committed to human rights. No to facial recognition in public space!

This article was written by Vladimir Garay for Derechos Digitales and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 CL, for your free use and adaptation.