It is exciting when Facebook immediately recognises your friends in a picture and suggests that you tag them in the photo. Also mind blowing when Google's artificial intelligence recognises a face and sorts it to a particular folder with the rest of the person's photos in your storage.
It is the amazing power of what artificial intelligence is now capable of. In a conversation with a friend, the prospect of paying for a meal with their face was rather exciting.
It shows how in the midst of all the hysteria about technonlogy, there is a forgotten paradigm to how our lives stand to be transformed by this technology beyond social media.
Has our excitement blinded us from the real dangers and the privacy that has been stripped away by this technology?
As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aimed at making China a “cyber-superpower,” Chinese companies offer African governments artificial intelligence and facial recognition systems. While the said purpose is "to battle crime", Africans are rightly concerned that the systems may make it easier to stifle legitimate dissent. Woodhams notes that there was no vote in Zimbabwe when Guangzhou-based CloudWalk agreed to build a “national facial recognition and monitoring system throughout cities and public transport stations.”
The statement that was released by the government at the time the deal with the Chinese was entered was naive enough to call the equipment a "donation" from China.
Raising further alarm where the places in which the technology was going to be placed. The statement read;
These donations of Facial Recognition Terminal that have a capability of deep learning facial recognition is the first of many to come. These will be implemented at all border posts, state entry points and airports for smooth transactions. The country for a long time has been in need for technology to improve efficiency at its entry points to handle large volumes of traffic.
Improve efficiency at its border posts?
China and Zimbawe's Freedom House rankings in terms of freedoms are at 14/100 and 30/100, respectively. So it is not likely that Zimbabwe will become more free by cooperating with China to increase surveillance, even if improves efficiency and at its point of entry.
This technology offers them the ability to pin an individual such as a foreign journalist once they enter the country. Monitor every movement they make, who they meet, where they went and much more.
This is a government that has been known to be radical about monitoring its citizens and political opponenents. Stories that come out of Zimbabwe very much mirror fictional political thrillers. Accidents have been known to happen to targets of the state, so as home invasions and kidnappings.
Imagine the power that the government will accrue with the ability to trace every move of its citizen within its borders. The power to know every traffic light crossed, places frequented and the precise daily routine of an individual.
It gets much more interesting than the following. Facial recognition is rapidly shaping perception about people based on their facial features alone. The technological frontiers being explored by questionable researchers and unscrupulous start-ups attempt to use facial structure and head shape to assess character and mental capacity.
In a much-contested 2016 paper, researchers at a Chinese university claimed they had trained an algorithm to distinguish criminal from noncriminal portraits, and that “lip curvature, eye inner corner distance, and the so-called nose-mouth angle” could help tell them apart. The paper includes “average faces” of criminals and noncriminals reminiscent of Galton’s composite portraits.
It is such theories that can be further inspiring African leaders to consider the technology for "security" reasons. One can wonder if it will be easier to tell an opposition activist's face from a ruling party supporter using artficial intelligence.
There are some worrying similiraties between the modern technology and historical applications of perceptions drawn only from one's face. A 1902 phrenology book showed how to distinguish a “genuine husband” from an “unreliable” one based on the shape of his head; today, an Israeli start-up called Faception uses machine learning to score facial images using personality types like “academic researcher,” “brand promoter,” “terrorist” and “pedophile.”
Faception’s marketing materials can be considered by many to be almost comical in their reduction of personalities to eight stereotypes, but the company appears to have customers, indicating an interest in “legitimizing this type of A.I. system,” said Clare Garvie, a facial recognition researcher at Georgetown Law.
“In some ways, they’re laughable,” she said. “In other ways, the very part that makes them laughable is what makes them so concerning.”
Whilst to Americans jokes of being watched via their webcams might be a joke, being watched is becoming a reality for Africans.
It should be frightening that out there, there is a company with access to the national registry database which is developing technology that can strip off our rights. A technology that can profile every little bit of one's life and restrict their civil liberties.
In light of the recent Sudan protests, will such technology not tempt the government and to identify evry individual in a video? Will protests even occur after such fears are raised?
Less than twenty percent of African countries have signed onto progressive legal frameworks like the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection. Civil society and lawmakers should therefore press for appropriate safeguards to deal with ethical and practical challenges arising from major AI-related investments.
And yes, we are all aware of how useless the AU can be.
Header Image Credit: Undark