From nanny state to Big Brother

Using facial-recognition software to stop underage boozing is the thin end of an authoritarian wedge.

Henry Williams

Topics Science & Tech UK

Robots might not be about to take over the world anytime soon, but it would be nice if politicians stopped giving them so many jobs to do. Last week, it was reported that the UK government wants to install facial-recognition cameras at supermarket checkouts to stop under-18s from buying alcohol.

As ever, this will supposedly be done in the name of ‘protection’. This time, it’s to protect shop staff from being abused by outraged 17-year-olds.

AI advocates insist that the cameras won’t be used to personally identify shoppers. Instead, facial-recognition technology will use AI to make a judgment call on a person’s age. Then, shop staff can step in and ask for ID. Supposedly, this will make things simpler for both customers and staff members. But I dread to think how irritating it will be to find an ‘unexpected youth in the bagging area’.

The problem with this proposal is that it is expressly giving AI a role in upholding the law. And once we allow algorithms to enforce legal requirements, things can only get worse from there. The next step could well be digital IDs – that catch-all solution that politicians of all parties just can’t seem to quit.

Similar technology is also being trialled in some pubs. Revellers have been asked to upload selfies along with their identification documents before approaching the bar. This might all save on queueing times, but who says it will stop there? How long before the same technology is used to identify patrons who might have had one too many? Maybe it could even be tied to the NHS app to ensure we don’t drink more than our allocated 14 units a week?

The private sector is increasingly trying to flog technological solutions that we don’t really need to politicians. Politicians, who want to appear au fait with modern tech and be seen to be doing something about social issues, readily accept. This is how a right of passage like a teenager sneakily buying a couple of tinnies at a corner shop can suddenly morph into a grand social problem in need of a technological fix.

It is ironic that the government is looking at ways of rolling out facial-recognition technology and digital identification at the same time it is talking up the threat from Russia and China. Russia is a world leader in facial-recognition technology. This is a result of its heady mix of extremely well-trained web developers, an unethical private sector and a corrupt government seeking ever more ways to keep its population in check.

Eight years ago, Russian nerds developed an app called FindFace, which allowed you to scan the faces of people in public and match them to their social-media profiles. Though FindFace was initially developed as a dating app, ‘its founders are aiming to profit handsomely from the technology by licensing its algorithm to retail companies and law enforcement’, one article explains. Where Russia goes, the UK is now following.

Likewise, China is a society that is now heavily policed by technological means. It is now virtually impossible to do anything in China without first downloading the WeChat app. What began as a simple messaging service and social-media site morphed first into a universal payment system, and then into a means of enforcing China’s infamous social-credit system. As former Chinese premier Li Keqiang said in a speech in 2018: ‘Those who lose credibility will find it hard to make a tiny step in society.’

We are not quite there yet, but we have seen similar moves before in the UK. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the government promised that there would be no introduction of vaccine passports, only for the suspiciously similar ‘Covid pass’ to be rolled out instead. And the recent Post Office scandal has shown what can happen when poorly designed computer software is used to rule on someone’s guilt or innocence.

As AI becomes increasingly powerful, we all need to be vigilant. It will continue to tempt politicians looking for a quick fix and a bit of media coverage. And when technology is adopted uncritically, we give it free rein to control our lives. The nanny state is bad enough. Let’s not let it morph into Big Brother.

Henry Williams is a writer based in London.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Science & Tech UK


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