Regulators Must Recognize New Technologies’ Benefits

Ross Marchand

July 29, 2019

This article originally appeared in the Catalyst on July 18, 2019. 

If a driver is having their license plate number checked after being pulled over, chances are there’s a ticket in their near future. Except… if said driver’s plates are being scanned by McDonald’s to provide meal suggestions based on order history. That’s right: fast food chains are testing technology to make it easy for repeat consumers to get the food they want without having to lift a finger. From license plate recognition to fingerprint and facial scanning, a wide array of “intrusive” technologies have the potential to give people what they want faster than ever. With clear rules setting expectations for these technologies and keeping the government from abusing these tools, various recognition software has a bright future.

Most conceivable technologies are merely tools, capable of inflicting mass harm… or bettering millions of lives depending on how they are used. Police, for instance, regularly use automatic license plate readers to maintain “hot lists” on people with certain proclivities to break the law. This could be useful if, say, the lists contain the plates of fugitives guilty of egregious crimes. It could be intrusive if it’s used to expand the surveillance state to include innocent motorists.

But these lists are often used by “the man” to go after low-level offenders, nabbing drivers with overdue court fees or a history of driving without insurance. Cops can use this digital license plate data to examine the (not so) criminal histories of their fellow motorists and make inferences about which drivers will yield the most ticket revenue. This is particularly unfair.  The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that a fraction of a percent of automatic plate scans by the police are linked to criminal activity or even vehicle registration issues.

To prevent such abuses, federal regulators need to do their due diligence by examining the worst-case scenarios of both public and private use. In one awful, yet plausible scenario, police departments will abuse scanning technology to pull over drivers for any number of ridiculous reasons, with the true intention of tripping up someone with a history of not having their insurance card or other minor infraction. However, when faced with a McDonald’s or Wendy’s using license plate information to tease out your taste buds ahead of time, freaked out drivers could simply… go elsewhere. Of course, any private use of these technologies must be “opt in,” so consumers know what they are getting.

License plate reading is just the tip of the iceberg for governments and companies grappling with game-changing technologies. Consumers and citizens can also add facial-recognition software to the list, which has attracted more fanfare and hysteria than virtually any other new technology. If privacy watchdogs don’t like the way that Facebook manages user data, chances are they really don’t appreciate the platform’s ability to auto-recognize users in pictures. Fortunately, Consumer Reports (not exactly a fan of Facebook’s privacy practices) reports that users can opt out of this software. And if consumers aren’t convinced about the completeness of the opt-out, they can always quit Facebook.

Citizens, however, cannot opt out of the federal government (via Immigration and Customs Enforcement) using facial recognition software to sift through their driver’s licenses to find illegal immigrants. This puts everybody at risk of being monitored by unruly government agents, which yes, has happened before. These unintended consequences should lead regulators to adopt safeguards against abuse and overreach and empower the FBI’s Public Corruption program to specifically monitor digital crimes.

Regulators must also examine the unintended consequences of restricting these technologies for countless companies vying to give consumers a better service. The debate is not just about tagging photos on Facebook or making drive-through orders easier. Recognition technology is also key for journalism and an open press. The New York Times has already started using facial recognition to identify high-profile guests at prominent events, such as royal weddings. Because of this, millions of readers now have unprecedented insight into where their leaders and celebrities are and who exactly they are hobnobbing with. This victory for transparency, however, could be compromised by overzealous regulators making it too difficult for private companies to use new technologies.

These inventions are just the beginning of many more new and exciting technologies to come. Let’s hope that government officials keep them out of the hands of unscrupulous public “servants” and allow free enterprise to take the lead.

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