Categories
Tech

USA May Go the Opposite Way of China on Facial Recognition: Where Does India Stand?

With Black Lives Matter protests hitting the streets in USA in light of George Floyd’s murder, questions regarding the use of facial recognition by police departments to identify protestors came to light. This follows a known pattern, where preceding protests in Hong Kong led to questions being raised regarding the use of Chinese state-backed facial recognition, coupled with a directive to ban the wearing of masks to safeguard privacy. In India, a glimpse of this was also seen during the Delhi riots that took over the early part of 2020. On this note, what has been uniformly underlined is the need to regulate facial recognition, and understand the thin line that breaches the privacy of a common man.

Highlighting these factors and much more, on June 25, senators in the United States of America proposed a new legislation that aims to prevent the police or any law-keeping body from using facial recognition technology under the guise of legal recourses. Filed by senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley, the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act is calling for a full ban on the use of facial recognition technologies by the government and government bodies. This injunction of sorts aims to remain in place until proper legislation safeguarding privacy and human rights – as well as stringent levels of data protection – are brought up. The moratorium will supposedly be lifted once the US Congress passes a bill years later allowing it, and as per the proposal of the senators, any federal agency in USA still proceeding to use facial recognition will not receive grants from the centre to function.

Relevance, now more than ever before

The move is particularly relevant at this time, when technologies such as facial and voice recognition are allegedly being used to identify protesters across the world. On June 15’s episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver stated that almost half of America’s population have likely had their faces indexed or searched for by USA’s law enforcement agencies. This coincides with reports raising questions on how racial profiling may be an inherent part of today’s facial recognition technologies – Amazon’s alleged racial bias in its system come up in recent memory. Compounding the misery, a startup called Clearview AI – that rose to notoriety with its severely privacy-ending facial recognition tool sourced to the police – did not even seem to have a legal clause that would stop it from scraping faces off public domain photos and throwing them into a surveillance data system.

Taking cue from the recent discourse, on June 9, IBM stated that it will exit the facial recognition business. In the letter declaring so, CEO Arvind Krishna said that as an organisation, IBM will “not condone” any technology that enables mass surveillance and racial profiling to violate fundamental human rights. Soon after, Microsoft followed suit, enforcing a ban on selling its facial recognition technology to American police and other agencies. Amazon, which previously refused to stop selling the technology to the police by citing “sufficient” safeguards in its terms of service, has also announced a one-year moratorium on sourcing facial recognition to the police.

A reverse-China precedent

This is of particular importance, as it shows that USA, which often leads discussions on new technologies, is understanding the side-effects of using facial recognition for legal purposes, and may be prepared to lean away from it. The first notion of this had come up when the European Union had discussed a possible blanket ban on all facial recognition usage in public spaces, before scrapping it – apparently due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But, in a world where China, the world’s most populous nation, has enforced what is being referred to as a ‘social credit score’, this move is significant. In fact, this can form a precedent that might define how India would look at facial recognition in the near future.

A November 2019 documentary titled ‘China: Power and Prosperity’ by PBS NewsHour illustrated the plight of individuals living in a surveillance state such as China. In the documentary, Jessica Tan, co-CEO of one of China’s main facial recognition technology suppliers Ping An, revealed how the entire model of facial recognition in China has been built from the ground-up to recognise minute details, such as micro-expressions on a person’s face to detect driving discipline, or even straight-up face recognition to detect bad social behaviour, such as jaywalking. People noted to be in breach are then publicly shamed, to promote ‘good behaviour’. This sets an ominous note on the overall scheme of things when it comes to facial recognition – one which India should be careful to avoid.

What this means for India

In India, the Advanced Facial Recognition Software (AFRS), developed by private firm INNEFU Labs, has been in use with the police for over two years. In a previous News18 report, it was revealed that the technology was initially procured to identify and track missing children and women, in a bid to tap into human trafficking rackets in Delhi. However, this technology soon developed into a full-fledged law enforcement tool, and Union Home Minister Amit Shah revealed in March 2020 that over 1,100 faces were identified using this tool as perpetrators of the violent riots that broke out in Delhi in early 2020.

However, such use of the technology has seen considerable protest and backlash from communities such as lawyers and privacy overseers. In a previous interview with News18, N.S. Nappinai, cyber law advocate at the Supreme Court of India, had stated that there are no laws that govern the use, data capture and storage of facial recognition and related assets in India. Worryingly, despite not having a legal framework to back it up, New Delhi has already appeared among the top 20 most surveilled cities in the world, as per a market survey by Comparitech.

In hindsight, USA’s ruling does not particularly ‘mean’ anything directly for India. Right now, India does not have a legal framework in place for enabling or restricting facial recognition, which is what puts the onus more on the government to proceed in this avenue with extra caution. It is important to note that US lawmakers are pushing to ban use of facial recognition during a turbulent time due to the lack of enough legal framework, and not enabling it. Whether India goes down this road, or follows one that is closer to China, would be the most critical deciding factor behind India’s stance on fundamental human rights of freedom and privacy. With strong anti-China sentiments sweeping the nation in light of the Galwan Valley clash, it is important that we reserve the same sentiments when it comes to facial recognition, too.


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Categories
Tech

Is Facebook Trying to Take on Amazon With Facebook Shops? This is Where Things Stand Right Now

Facebook wants to take the next step. The largest social media network in the world, with the Facebook app, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp platforms in its arsenal, is now looking seriously at the world of online shopping. Will we know this as the evolution of e-commerce to social commerce? The new Facebook Shops platform invites businesses to sell to customers on the social media app itself. It may be a good time too, with most businesses having been forced to shift online because of the COVID pandemic. Is the beginning of Facebook vs Amazon in the online shopping space?

“Right now many small businesses are struggling, and with stores closing, more are looking to bring their business online. Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers, says Facebook in an official statement.

What exactly are Facebook Shops?

Simply put, this will be an online store for customers that businesses can set up on the Facebook platform. Customers will be able to access these stores via the Facebook and Instagram apps. The social network also says the Facebook Shops will be available on Messenger and WhatsApp sometime soon. These stores will appear on business pages and through targeted ads.

“People can find Facebook Shops on a business’ Facebook Page or Instagram profile, or discover them through stories or ads. From there, you can browse the full collection, save products you’re interested in and place an order — either on the business’ website or without leaving the app if the business has enabled checkout in the US.,” says Facebook.

What if I need help while shopping?

If you have a query while shopping on Facebook Shops, you will be able to message a business through WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, get support, track deliveries and more. “And in the future, you’ll be able to view a business’ shop and make purchases right within a chat in WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct,” says Facebook.

“We’re starting to roll out Facebook Shops today, and it will be more widely available in the coming months,” says the social network. At this time, the focus is on widening the number of businesses on the Facebook Shop platform.

Instagram Shop is also coming?

Facebook is also launching Instagram Shop this summer in the US. It will be integrated in the Instagram Explore tab. “You can get inspired by collections from @shop, browse selections from your favorite brands and creators, filter by categories like beauty and home, and purchase the looks you love all in one place,” they say.

What is the business side of things?

Facebook is working with partners including Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce, ChannelAdvisor, CedCommerce, Cafe24, Tienda Nube and Feedonomics to provide support to smaller businesses who may need to move online. “These organizations offer powerful tools to help entrepreneurs start and run their businesses and move online. Now they’ll help small businesses build and grow their Facebook Shops and use our other commerce tools,” says Facebook.

This is the evolution from ‘Like’ to ‘Buy’ that Facebook is seriously looking at. With customizable storefronts, businesses will get an option to reach an even wider demographic of potential buyers on the world’s most popular social media platform. Global rollout details are still awaited, but the Shops should be rolling out on Facebook in the US anytime now. This could be a good strategy at a time when advertising revenues may have been hit as businesses that otherwise advertise heavily on the social network, may have pulled back.

How about privacy?

Facebook says they will use the data from your activity on Facebook Shops to personalize the experience on the Facebook family of apps and vice versa—and that would largely refer to the adverts and recommendations that you will see. They do say that none of your Facebook Shops activity will be shared on the social media platform, unless you choose to do so.



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