Face wear … the role of FRT in policing what is placed on the face

There has been understandable outcry over recent reports of Iranian authorities planning to use facial recognition technology to enforce a new law requiring women to wear the hijab when riding on public transport. Object detection software can detect the presence (or not) of a head-dress, with FR software then identifying any individuals deemed to be transgressing. The chilling connotations of this deployment of smart cameras is obvious. Newspaper reports quote Azadeh Akbari (University of Twente) describing the new Iranian system as “combin[ing] violent ‘old-fashioned’ forms of totalitarian control dressed up in new technologies”.

This Iranian use case prompts us to further reflect on what might be seen as less controversial potential uses of FRT to police what is placed on people’s faces and heads. For example, there are many public-facing professions that have arbitrary rules over how employees can wear their hair, apply make-up, or the length that one is permitted to grow a beard or moustache. Elsewhere, there are many different venues that might want to prohibit people entering with facial tattoos, or particular facial jewellery. Similarly, small shops and gas stations are often keen to deter people from approaching the cash register wearing motorcycle helmets, while schools often ban the wearing of hats and head-scarfs. 

It is easy to conceive of ways in which these uses of FRT can be promoted as beneficial and benign. This technology might be used to ensure that construction workers are wearing safety helmets, or that prescribed eye-glass wearers are properly equipped to work at a laptop. At a global scale, these are uses of FRT that might be reasonably expected in the event of another pandemic (or similar event where mass public mask-wearing needs to be enforced).

As with all examples of FRT use, these different scenarios highlight the blurred lines that the technology throws up between care and control, trust and totalitarianism. Our gut response to the rights and wrongs of such uses will likely depend on our broader experiences of the institutions that are deploying the technology. In this sense, the Iranian use of FRT raises concerns over basic human rights and freedoms that might also extend to many other minoritized, marginalised or disempowered groups that also find their face-wear being scanned and scrutinised in this manner – from a school child to temporarily-employed casual office worker. Akbari’s critique of ‘old-fashioned’ forms of control being dressed up in new technologies is applicable to FRT uses well beyond Tehran. 

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