Human Rights Watch has sent an open letter to Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the Mayor of Buenos Aires, to express concern about a new facial recognition system being deployed in the city’s subway system. The cameras have now been installed at several transit stations in the Argentinian capital.
In the letter, author José Miguel Vivanco was particularly worried about the ways in which the surveillance system could be used against children. In that regard, Vivanco noted that Argentina maintains a comprehensive database of fugitives who are wanted for serious crimes. However, that system has also listed as many as 166 children between 2017 and 2020, many of whom are accused of relatively minor offences like theft.
That database represents a potential violation of international human rights laws, which guarantee the privacy of children, including those accused of committing a crime. Argentina’s Consulta Nacional de Rebeldías y Capturas (CONARC) database contains no such safeguards, and in fact contains personal information about children and makes that information available to the public.
Those concerns have been compounded in Buenos Aires, where the city’s Sistema de Reconocimiento Facial de Prófugos (SRFP) facial recognition system has been used to search for people listed in the CONARC database since April of 2019. CONARC does not contain images of offenders, so SRFP draws on the country’s population registry to search for matches.
Even so, Human Rights Watch is worried that the system will have a disproportionate impact on children, who are more likely to be falsely identified because facial recognition systems are typically trained on adult faces. That includes the NtechLab algorithms being used in Buenos Aires, with the NIST finding that the company’s technology was less accurate when asked to recognize children in independent testing. The younger the children are, the more likely they are to be misidentified by the company’s current offerings.
The United Nations has previously warned that CONARC runs contrary to children’s rights laws in the past, and Human Rights Watch is echoing those concerns in its letter. It pointed out that Germany scrapped a similar system after a trial generated an error rate of 0.34 percent, yet Buenos Aires is moving forward even though it has publicly admitted that its system has error rates as high as three percent, which could lead to hundreds of false stops (and false arrests) when used at scale on a transit system with 1.4 million daily riders.
With that in mind, Human Rights Watch is asking the city to suspend its SRFP system, and to use the time to conduct a privacy impact assessment and engage more openly with civic society. It has also asked the national government to remove children under 18 from the version of CONARC that is open to the public.
The letter reflects the growing international backlash to face-based surveillance. Several US cities have now implemented facial recognition bans, and the European Union has considered a temporary ban that would give legislators an opportunity to catch up to the technology.
October 14, 2020 – by Eric Weiss