Should you be concerned about facial recognition technology?

The tension between security and human dignity

May 22, 2019

Imagine a society where a criminal could be tracked down almost immediately by police and taken into custody, all by using his face as identification. Or a world where you no longer need to carry your ID card, insurance information, or even your credit or debit cards because you could pay for your meal using facial recognition, as many do today in the eastern city of Hangzhou, China.

While all this might sound futuristic and far-fetched, it’s already creating a stir in our society. Governments and businesses around the world are thinking through innovative uses of facial recognition technology and are entering into lively debates over its merits and downfalls. And its uses seem to grow more controversial each day.

A few weeks ago, for example, San Francisco became the first major American city to ban the use of facial recognition surveillance technology. While some argue it could be used by police for safer communities, opponents argue that it can reinforce bias and discrimination, as well as invade residents’ privacy. China is an example of some of its troubling uses. The government has used it to strengthen the authoritarian hand of the Communist Party, cracking down on dissidents, especially those of certain faith communities like the Uighur Muslims.

In light of the ban in San Francisco and the abuses of facial recognition worldwide, the U.S. House of Representatives is hosting a hearing to think through this technology and how it might affect the future of security, surveillance, and privacy. Should companies be able to develop, promote, and sell this often-controversial technology? What privacy measures must we develop in order to use facial recognition wisely, in a way that shows respect for every human being and his or her privacy? And how do we balance the real tension between security and basic human freedoms such as freedom of speech and assembly?

Real-time tracking

We live in a world where each step we take and purchase we make is being tracked, analyzed, and stored, and it might be used in ways that we can’t imagine right now. While we already enjoy many benefits of these data-driven tools, privacy issues abound in the age of artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition.

AI is the underlying technology that drives the ability of cameras to employ facial recognition. Facial scans can be done proactively by users who sign up for or use certain commercial services, but these scans can also be done through mass-video capture without one’s knowledge. Even certain airports are using facial recognition for check-in, pre-screening, and boarding passes. But who holds that data, and how might it be used in ways that would undermine the public’s trust?

And facial recognition is not just used on the public level. We already unlock our phones with our faces, and many people have home security cameras like my family’s Google Nest Hello video doorbell, which can detect faces, learns over time for greater accuracy, and even produces visitor announcements when someone arrives. We use facial recognition every day, but many of us haven’t begun to think through the ethical and moral implications of this powerful technology.

What’s the path forward?

While this technology can and will be abused, why would city supervisors in San Francisco seek to ban it? Do the bad applications outweigh the good? When we approach tools like facial recognition and AI, we often do so from a place of fear or misunderstanding. It is true that this technology can be misused and wielded in a way that seeks to digitize humanity by treating our neighbors as pieces of data rather than flesh and blood image-bearers. Fears of a Big Brother state or overly-invasive marketing schemes are present-day realities. This is the case with the Uighur Muslims in China and will likely be the case worldwide in the near future. But rather than overreact and miss the benefits of how this technology can be harnessed well, we must seek to engage the debates rationally. So, is an outright ban the right path forward?

On one hand, it’s easy to understand why San Francisco city supervisors seek to ban facial recognition surveillance technology, but a true path forward is much more difficult than a blanket ban that misses the nuances of reality. Similar bans on technology have recently been sought on things like autonomous weapons. Because of the ways that we tend to react to new possibilities in technology, we can miss the need to do the hard work of regulating and protecting our basic freedoms.

There will be many points of view when it comes to the best way to deploy and utilize this revolutionary technology. And this is a good thing for our society. Lively debate over important matters is vital to a flourishing society, which is why I am encouraged that the House is beginning to engage this technology. But these discussions must not be limited to the halls of Congress or to local governments. They must take place in the hallways and living rooms of homes throughout our nation, because technology doesn’t wait for us to decide how to use it properly before its impact is felt widely.

Facial recognition can be a bit overwhelming for those without a deep understanding of how it works and the issues at stake. But engaging these matters doesn’t require a government position or even advanced degrees in computer science or surveillance. As we enter these discussions, we must not lose sight of the fact that this technology is here to stay, and no type of ban will stop the development and use of these tools. We must decide as a society what value we place on feeling secure while maintain privacy. We must decide how to use these technologies with wisdom and care, rather than punting the issue down the road for future generations.

Denying basic human dignity to our neighbors in the name of security is not an adequate basis for developing and utilizing facial recognition. While this technology may lead to safer communities, it can also lead to a surveillance state like we already see in other nations. The challenge before us, especially as Christians, is to develop clear guidelines driven by fundamental principles rather than responding to issues as they arise. And we must make sure to stand for the vulnerable and voiceless among us and across the world. Nothing short of human dignity is at stake.

For more information about the data and privacy issues surrounding the use of technology like artificial intelligence and facial recognition, read a new statement of principles developed by ERLC and top Evangelical leaders at ERLC.com/AI

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24