Biometric surveillance ‒ horror scenario or security-relevant measure?
One feels a bit transported to the dystopian world Orwell designed in his novel "1984": train station, crossroads, shopping street, subway stop, in the tram ‒ everywhere in public space are cameras that recognize everyone, track them, record their paths and store everything. What sounded like science fiction just a few years ago is now possible without any problems.
How biometric facial recognition works
In order to monitor people in public spaces, technology that can recognize a face is required. These systems already exist and are already used in some totalitarian states to monitor the population. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze the face in real time after identification on a video or photo. Biometric characteristics such as the exact distance between the nose, eyes and mouth are compared. This biometric data is unique and unmistakable for every person like a fingerprint.
The data is stored as numerical codes and can be retrieved at any time. In recent years, development in the field of biometric facial recognition has progressed rapidly. High-resolution cameras have a hit rate of almost 100 percent and are significantly better in facial recognition than the people who programmed them.
Where can facial recognition be used?
There is a whole range of applications for biometric facial recognition. For example, secured areas in buildings can be equipped with a scanner that only allows access to people whose biometric data is stored. This method is much more efficient than entering a password. For some time now, passports have contained biometric passport photos that a border official can identify as genuine or fake with the help of a camera.
Another area of application would be marketing, where a billboard at a bus stop sends out advertising relevant to the target group after the average age of those waiting has been determined using biometric facial recognition. Biometric data is already being used today to log on to end devices such as smartphones.
Horror scenario of total surveillance
The vision of total surveillance in public space is taking shape with the rapid development of biometric systems. Horror scenarios would be conceivable in which cameras are linked together in public spaces and track a person fully automatically. This would allow movement profiles to be created and stored for large parts of the population.
If the recorded images are combined and matched with route data from cars, smartphone data, voice recordings of phone calls and biometric access data for computers, vehicles and buildings, total surveillance would no longer be a vision but a bitter reality.
German BKA evaluates biometric data
The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has been using a facial recognition system to identify people since 2008. Current figures from the authority show that the technology is becoming more and more sophisticated. In 2022, more than 2,800 unknown people were identified using the software, compared to 1,334 a year earlier. The aim of the BKA is to solve crimes. To this end, cell phone videos and photos taken of suspected offenders are evaluated by matching their faces with data stored in the INPOL police database.
Conclusion: Biometric facial recognition can make many people's lives easier and applications safer. In order for the technology not to be used for total surveillance, but only for the prosecution of offenders, clear legal rules must be created. The EU Commission has proposed a fundamental ban on biometric identification systems in public spaces, but with wide-ranging exceptions.