AI facial recognition has become part of our lives - more than you might realise.

It's being trialled in supermarkets across Aotearoa, it's used by law enforcement agencies, and when you leave the country and go through customs - AI facial recognition is also used there. Some people use it to unlock their phones. 

Re: News journalist Te Ahipourewa Forbes spoke to Māori AI ethicist Dr Karaitiana Taiuru (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Toa) about AI facial recognition and the impacts it could have on people in Aotearoa.

Karaitiana Taiuru. Photo/supplied.

Te Ahipourewa: What is AI facial recognition?

Karaitiana: AI facial recognition is a computer algorithm or artificial intelligence using different parts of your face like a tattoo, a scar or blemishes to recognise people based on features. 

It identifies the person and stores the image in the AI system. That image will later be used to cross-reference a person who has walked past a camera or facial recognition camera and it will match the person or not match them.

Te Ahipourewa: How long has AI facial recognition been around? 

Karaitiana: It’s not brand new, it has been around. I’d say 10 years, maybe. 

Te Ahipourewa: What is AI facial recognition often used for? How has this evolved or changed over time?

Karaitiana: It is usually used by law enforcement agencies overseas and in retail chains, as well as customs around the world. In America, it's used by the military. 

We've also seen it being used in the war in Russia and Ukraine to identify deceased people. 

In New Zealand, some people might use it to unlock their cell phones to do online banking, or various small technologies, on their phones. 

Te Ahipourewa: In the past, you've labelled it "racist" and "sexist", why is that?

Karaitiana: Some people think of artificial intelligence as being intelligent and being really clever, but it's only as clever as the engineers and the people who put data into it. 

History and research prove that it's typically middle-aged white men who work in these positions. 

The science from psychology will say, well, those middle-aged white men typically just reflect what they consider normal into systems. So, when they were creating facial recognition technologies, they considered everyone who was white and looked like them. 

That immediately discriminates against women and immediately discriminates against any person of colour or anyone who's not European-looking. That data just keeps on perpetuating and becoming more and more biased.

Te Ahipourewa: Are there examples outside of NZ?

Karaitiana: People of colour in America were labelled as gorillas. 

We've got significant amounts of research and evidence from America where people of colour are falsely arrested quite often based on facial recognition technology. 

I can't imagine what it'd be like to be arrested because a computer said I was someone else, it’s quite damaging.

Te Ahipourewa: Back in February, Foodstuffs trialled AI facial recognition in NZ supermarkets to "combat repeat offending". Do you think other organisations in NZ will start using AI facial recognition in the future?

Karaitiana: I think it's inevitable that other retail organisations will, but my concerns are that it's not regulated enough by the privacy commissioner.

We don’t have appropriate training for human staff. We also don't have enough images of Māori being trained on the AI system.

I fear we’re going to see a massive increase in women and Māori and Pasifika being falsely identified in these trials. 

I think we need to push the privacy commissioner to do more and be more proactive. 

We also need to look at how the NZ police trialled facial recognition technology and ruled it to be inconclusive. 

Re: News contacted the office of the Privacy Commissioner, who said they were undertaking an inquiry into the use of facial recognition technology by Foodstuffs North Island stores to establish whether it complies with the Privacy Act.

“We will be looking for evidence after the trial that the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) has made a practical and statistically significant difference to the incidence of retail crime in Foodstuff North Island supermarkets relative to other less privacy intrusive options.

“The Commissioner’s concern is that FRT isn’t a proven tool in efforts to reduce harmful behaviour in supermarkets, especially violent harmful behaviour. Also, using facial recognition technology to reduce harmful behaviour in supermarkets raises significant privacy risks and the trial is itself not without risk.

“For example, discrimination and racial bias are both things we’ve signalled that could be issues with facial recognition technology.  

“The Commissioner is concerned about what this means for Māori, Pasifika, Indian, and Asian shoppers especially as the software is not trained on New Zealand’s population. This concern was realised with the recent misidentification of a female Māori customer in a Rotorua trial store.”

The office of the Privacy Commissioner also said they are considering whether further regulation is warranted “to protect against the roll-out of high-risk, intrusive uses of biometrics in New Zealand”, and that in November 2023 the Commissioner announced he would be exploring a legally-enforceable code of practice under the Privacy Act to regulate biometrics.

Te Ahipourewa: What are the impacts of AI facial recognition on people of colour and Indigenous people? 

Karaitiana: My concern is that it will pick up on moko, whether it's a kauwae or mataora because it's a quick and easy way to identify someone. So immediately, we've got the cultural issues. 

Some cultures don't want to be photographed. 

Misidentification is probably the big one.

Te Ahipourewa: What are the benefits of AI facial recognition? In what ways can society benefit from AI facial recognition? 

Karaitiana: If you’re a victim of crime, it can definitely help. As a retailer, it could help.

Identifying the dead in Ukraine, it could be a benefit for families.

I think as New Zealanders, we could use it for identifying migrating birds and where they go. 

There are lots of images of our tūpuna and we’re not quite sure who they are, maybe facial recognition could be used in that area. 

It just needs some really strong regulation, it needs strong ethical consideration, cultural considerations. There are opportunities, but again I think Māori need to be at the table for these discussions. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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