Fears of technological innovations are nothing new. When the Kodak portable camera was introduced in 1888, a panic ensued over privacy concerns. People were horrified “Kodak Fiends” would take embarrassing photographs of them without their consent.
The panic over the Kodak camera even made its way to the White House. When a boy took a picture of President Theodore Roosevelt during his first week in office, Roosevelt scolded the boy, saying “you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Today, the panic over the Kodak camera seems quaint. Americans carry pocket sized cameras everywhere they go. Still, those fears didn’t seem silly at the time. But real privacy risks were eventually mitigated by things like “Peeping Tom” laws and fear faded as cameras improved, offering more benefit than risk to consumers.
Yet, the tendency to embrace the commonplace and fear new inventions exists. Sociologists have coined the term “technopanic” to describe the mass moral panics that occur when people distrust technology and fear it is a risk to society. But often, this unchecked fear just slows technological progress and imposes real societal costs in the process.
A recent example is the technopanic over facial recognition technology. Facial recognition is rapidly evolving and offers many potential benefits to users. Some of these benefits include faster and more secure check-in or payment methods online, personalized services, and more security.
But understandable fears of government overreach may be going too far and ultimately hamstring the benefits of this emerging technology.
It is important to constrain government use of facial recognition technology as news reports out of China and elsewhere illustrate how it could be abused. But curbing even private development of facial recognition technology has become a growing trend in the states.
Currently, Illinois, Washington and Texas have laws restricting private uses of the technology. The city of San Francisco followed suit by outright banning local government agencies from using facial recognition technology. Now, Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts are considering similar policies.
The most stringent biometric privacy law is in Illinois. Known as the “Biometric Information Privacy Act,” the law effectively prohibits private entities such as Facebook or Google from implementing facial recognition into any of their products.
These well-meaning biometric privacy laws are meant to protect consumer privacy. However, they may end up doing the opposite. Facial recognition technology uses biometric identifiers to increase privacy over alternative verification methods. A passcode can be hacked or stolen. But a fingerprint or facial scan to unlock an iPhone? That’s a password unique to the user that cannot be easily replicated.
Another practical use for facial recognition is allowing parents and teachers to register their biometric identifiers with a school to help keep track of those authorized to enter a secure school building. That is a particularly promising use of this technology as we try to make our schools and workplaces safer in the wake of mass shooting.
Future generations might look back at our current technopanic over facial recognition technology and think it just as quaint as the outrage over the Kodak camera. And while fears over potential abuses should be taken seriously, it is important to mitigate any actual harm without curbing the benefits of this invention.
Constant government surveillance is a scary idea. But, due to the infancy of facial recognition, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of many private benefits it can offer to consumers — increased privacy and security being just the beginning. We must be careful not to stifle this exciting new technology out of fear of the unknown.
Anna Parsons is policy coordinator at the American Legislative Exchange Council, where she focuses on state technology policy in the Center for Innovation and Technology.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.