BY Wesley Diphoko 3 MINUTE READ

In the very near future, you will be arrested by a robot. It will use a facial recognition feature in its camera which will be attached to the steel body to detect criminals based on their facial features. This may sound too far in the future, however, its foundations are being laid probably unknowingly by the process underway in South Africa to equip law enforcement officers with cameras.

At face value,, it sounds like a great idea until you consider its broader implications.

On one hand, by implementing such a solution it is claimed it will reduce police corruption. At the same time, however, it’s believed it will serve as a protection for citizens in cases where there’s a need to defend wrongdoing by officers. Video analysis software could serve as an automatic “early warning system,” helping to flag officers who exhibit a tendency to, for instance, resort to excessive force or aggressive language in their encounters with the public.

One can’t deny that body cameras for police officers will empower them with better intelligence in the process of carrying out their work.

On the other hand body cameras may open another can of worms.

There’s a need to consider how data will be stored and what will be done with such data.

Transparency in this regard will build trust in this security intervention. In the short run such data may seem harmless. Over time there’s a scenario where there are terabytes of citizen footage which may be exposed to security risks and other related threats.

A major concern that should receive greater attention is the scenario where facial recognition is used. In other parts of the world this technology has already led to wrongful arrests. It has also been accused of bias as some races have fallen victims of its imperfections. Due to similar concerns, leading tech companies halted their facial recognition plans in the past.

IBM announced in 2020 they would be getting out of the facial recognition tools game altogether, and then Amazon announced it was placing a moratorium on selling its facial recognition tools to police for one year. Both moves were sparked by the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers. Concern at the time was that facial recognition technology had frequently been found to be racially biased.

These concerns are worth taking into consideration if the use of such tools could lead to wrongful arrests. South Africa is not there yet. The body cameras that may be used by law enforcement officers may not have facial recognition features yet. It’s worth noting however that the technology exists to enable it. It is for this reason that the introduction of body cameras for law enforcement officers should be welcomed with open eyes. For n,ow it may be just cameras. In the future, it may be body cameras that have facial recognition capability.

In the US this is already a challenge. An increasing number of police officers around the U.S. already use cruiser-mounted licence plate readers to track passing cars, and in some cases, face recognition smartphone apps that can photograph and immediately identify unknown people officers stop on the street. A letter by 50 civil rights groups said “the technology is rapidly being interconnected with everyday police activities,” but that “the safeguards to ensure this technology is being used fairly and responsibly appear to be virtually nonexistent.” Because laws governing the use of biometrics are rare, individuals police encounter can often be photographed and have their faces run through face-matching databases without their consent.

In South Africa, we may see similar situations in the interest of addressing crime. Such cameras will source data from computer systems that are fed data about you.

It is this type of camera that will enable a robot to arrest you (hopefully not wrongfully).

When we get to that point it will be too late to create safeguards against rogue cameras with facial recognition that are powered by artificial intelligence.

The introduction of body cameras for law enforcement officers should be accompanied by laws that are designed to maintain human rights. Such an introduction of technology will go a long way in curbing crime and corruption.