Face Recognition to Verify Vaccine Status?

Facial solutionism has, predictably, reared its head in the vexed discussion of vaccine passports. A government funded program in the UK is developing software that pubs, cafes, and other venues can use to scan patron’s faces as a condition of entry to determine whether they have been vaccinated. Such an approach would protect against the prospect of fraudulent vaccination certificates, such as those in circulation in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere. However, it would also mean creating a database of the faces of people who have been vaccinated and possibly placing this in the hands of commercial vendors. It is easy to see how facial recognition technology can bypass longstanding issues with traditional models of identity verification, but doing so creates a host of digital records that are notoriously difficult to secure, especially when they are in widespread use. Moreover, the use of facial recognition technology in such contexts switches the burden of proof onto individuals who might be wrongly excluded based on a technology that is still far from perfect. This reconfiguration of authentication is a hallmark of automated systems and marks a shift in bureaucratic power toward the machine. If the machine says you owe money, it’s on you to prove it wrong; if it says you are not who you say you are, it is right until proven otherwise. If I show up at a bank or a bar and provide my ID with credentials, these can be questioned, but some evidence needs to be invoked before these are denied: the watermark is wrong, the signature doesn’t match mine, the RFID chip doesn’t match. When the machine misidentifies me, the burden is on my to prove its wrong — without having any access to how it works or the data upon which it relies. Machines do not see the way people do — they cannot make a definitive identification, but can only generate relative probabilities of a match. We may, as a society, decide that we want to require vaccines for access to certain spaces, the way we require them, for example, for children to access schools, but we need to think carefully about whether we want to rely on automated verification systems to enforce this decision.

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