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Facing The Future: The Use Of Biometric Tech

New Zealanders are currently being invited to have their say on the use of biometric technologies in an ongoing consultation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of New Zealand (OPC). Earlier this year the OPC published an initial draft of the biometrics privacy code, a set of rules recently drawn up to regulate the use of facial recognition and voice analysis tools as they're increasingly deployed by businesses.

New Zealand is far from unique in deploying biometric tools to solve major social challenges. As the technology has matured and improved in recent years, facial recognition has been increasingly deployed to take advantage of the increased speed, safety, and security it can provide for users.

However, privacy groups and researchers have cited some strong concerns about how this data is being used in practice. The potential to infringe on people's privacy, or misidentify individuals due to AI bias are two of the key concerns cited by academics as reasons to be wary of this new tool.

Understanding Biometric Technology

One of many new technologies built on the back of recent advances in machine learning (ML), biometric data includes anything about an individual that is uniquely identifiable. Today, it’s routinely used to identify individuals, provide authentication, and track people for a wide variety of purposes ranging from security access to law enforcement and crime prevention. Throughout New Zealand, recent trials being monitored by the Privacy Commissioner's office have begun to evaluate the use of facial recognition technology in supermarkets and stores throughout the country to crack down on a surge in retail crime.

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Biometrics can include facial recognition, iris recognition, voice pattern analysis, walking gait analysis, fingerprints, and DNA amongst others. When collected, any of these attributes can be used individually or in conjunction to uniquely identify an individual, track their movement, and match them against previously collected records.

The capabilities of modern high-quality CCTV cameras combined with large data storage devices and AI-enabled systems have supercharged the capabilities of biometric data collection to expand what it can do for law enforcement and businesses. Away from these headline-grabbing use cases, however, biometrics have some far more common day-to-day applications we commonly take for granted.

Most iPhone users will already be familiar with biometrics through the use of the device’s Face ID system to unlock their devices, sign in to services, and make purchases by card. Apple's system uses facial recognition technology to store the measurements of the authorised user’s face and grants verification only when those measurements are presented again to the camera. Facebook uses the same biometric technology to recognize users and tag people in their friends' shared photos and videos.

Biometrics are already being widely used worldwide to enable contactless commercial transactions, collect traffic tolls on the move, and enforce parking regulations with seamless efficiency. Automatic licence plate recognition technology uses the same computer vision technology to read vehicle licence plates and provide automated security and verification for gated access systems, parking structures, and neighbourhood security programs.

Used in crime prevention programs, these systems have shown strong potential to make a huge positive impact on communities. Cameras enabled with biometric technology are able to match licence plates against law enforcement watch lists and criminal databases to alert authorities to the presence of wanted individuals and vehicles as they appear on site. Additionally, the ability to record broad contextual information relating to a crime has been shown to assist investigation far more than conventional video footage.

When deployed in real-world use cases, the maker of one such system reported that ALPR systems used in neighbourhood watch and crime prevention programs reduced crime by 70% in more than 2,500 areas.

How Biometrics Are Used Around the World

Both facial recognition tools and ALPR are being deployed globally to provide technical solutions to solve highly complex problems. In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has used licence plate reading technology to track and trace vehicles relating to investigations since 2008. More recently, facial recognition technology has been integrated into this tool to provide the agency with the ability to track individuals across multiple vehicles and locations in complex drug trafficking investigations.

In the UK, plans are underway to create passport-free entry lanes that rely on biometrics to verify a person's identity without the need to scan any physical documents. Earlier this year the UK Home Office announced plans to create more than 270 'frictionless' travel gates to allow travellers speedy access.

In New Zealand, facial recognition technology has recently been rolled out as part of an ongoing trial by grocery cooperative Foodstuffs North Island. The scheme, overseen by the OPC, has seen the deployment of facial recognition cameras throughout 25 of the company's New World and Pak'nSave stores for a 6 month period.

This trial comes in the wake of a 34 percent increase in retail crime from October to December last year throughout New Zealand. A recent survey published by industry group Retail NZ has put the annual cost of retail crime at NZ$2.6 billion annually with a recent rise in theft in which 92 percent of retailers reported falling victim to crime.

Using Biometrics Responsibly

Like most technologies, the advantages of biometrics come with their own risks and trade-offs. The OPC is particularly concerned about the potential invasion of privacy that may result from the widespread use of facial recognition cameras to gather user data. One expert in the field likened the technology to capturing a person's fingerprint or DNA sample every time they pass through a door or gateway.

Dr Kate Bower, a specialist in AI regulation and fellow at the UTS Human Technology Institute described the technology to RNZ's Checkpoint as "a highly invasive privacy technology" that is far more advanced and intrusive than a standard CCTV camera. While a conventional camera only captures video footage, facial recognition tools go further and "actually captures the biometric data of each individual person who walks past the camera".

Bower raised concerns about the implications for data security and personal privacy of holding so much personal data on members of the public. "It's really important that we ask questions about where they're storing it, how long they're storing it, can we request deletion of our information, is it being stored in New Zealand or is it being stored in a data centre overseas?”

The availability of vast amounts of highly personal data creates a high-priority target for hackers and criminals. With an increased reliance on biometric face and voice signatures to access services, authorities worldwide are concerned about the risks of identity theft and impersonation that these technologies introduce. The burden placed on stores and supermarkets to ensure appropriate data security measures are in place may yet prove to be too much to bear.

Bower also raised related concerns about the accuracy of facial identification technologies and the potential for the system to misidentify an individual as a result of racial bias introduced in training data. "We know that the accuracy rates go way down for people who are brown-skinned or black-skinned. That's something that every person should be concerned about."

Despite these concerns, biometric data is increasingly being adopted into consumer products and services due to the safety and security it can provide to businesses and customers. Rules and regulations designed to guard against misuse and protect against privacy concerns are currently being drawn up in both New Zealand and Australia.

The Future of Biometric Tech in New Zealand

Technologies built around computer vision tools such as facial recognition and ALPR cameras can have revolutionary impacts. They have already begun to reduce crime, improve safety, and create frictionless transactions at ports and checkpoints. However, their use and deployment have to be carefully weighed against the potential privacy concerns for their users.

New Zealanders can currently have their say on recent proposals by responding to the first draft of OPC regulations to voice their own concerns or preferences. Consultations are currently open through the first half of 2024 in conjunction with the ongoing trial with Foodstuffs North Island. Later revisions of the biometrics privacy code will aim to provide rules and regulations around the use of biometric information to ensure public privacy and safety in this new technology landscape.

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