Facial Recognition is the Future

NYC Media Lab
6 min readDec 13, 2019


Camera, Mirror, Tell Me…Who Do You See?
This week, we’re learning about facial recognition. In light of recent news, we’ll touch upon how this technology — which uses photo and video images to map and identify facial features — unlocks new opportunities in cybersecurity and healthcare, amongst others. We’ll then take a close look at how this technology is being used around the world, and the implications its (mis)uses has on the future of privacy and government.

On a related note, we’ll also explore a new framework for regulating, you know, The Internet. Additionally, we’ll consider best practices for managing organizations’ digital projects and try to define what, exactly, an influencer actually is.

We hope you’ve been enjoying this newsletter and would love any feedback (erica@nycmedialab.org). Thank you again for reading!

Erica Matsumoto
NYC Media Lab


As the name suggests, facial recognition is a way to recognize human faces using technology (specifically, biometrics). This video is a good explainer:

For most of us, the primary way we encounter facial recognition is through using facial recognition to unlock our phones (Face ID for iPhones and iPads and Face Unlock on the Pixel 4). However, mobile phone facial recognition is just the beginning for facial recognition technology.

The U.S. government has been using facial recognition technology at airports to identify people who have overstayed their visas or may be under criminal investigation. In August 2018, Customs officials at Washington Dulles International Airport made their first facial-recognition enabled arrest, catching an imposter trying to enter the U.S.


Many companies see facial recognition as the next frontier of convenience and security for their consumers. Many financial services companies’ phone apps area already compatible with Face ID. Online purchases are the next step in this arena — Alibaba and its affiliate payment software, Alipay, are working on technology to apply facial recognition to online purchases, as well.

There are also numerous applications for health care, as well, including:

  • Using unique patient photos in lieu of passwords and usernames to secure patient data
  • Identifying people posing as patients in order to access treatments and other medication
  • Traffic pattern analysis to help health care facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, and outpatient treatment facilities locate patients without the need for tracking devices

A moving use of facial recognition is Listerine’s use of facial recognition to develop an app to enable blind people to detect when they’re being smiled at. When the app detects a smile, it beeps and vibrates to let the person know that they’re being smiled at.

Facial recognition can also be used in retail environments to help identify known shoplifters, target advertising towards consumers, and detect consumers’ moods and reactions as they move through a store — or offer phone-free payments and personalized loyalty programs like facenote, a startup in NYC Media Lab’s Verizon 5G Retail Challenge!


Not all uses of facial recognition are beneficial, or even benign. Recent reports reveal that the Chinese government has been using facial recognition technology — much of it bought from Western companies — to track and detain the Muslim ethnic minority in the western autonomous province of Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country.

This surveillance is enabled by facial recognition scanners at mosques and a smartphone app that Xinjiang police use to track people’s movement and electricity and gas station usage. It’s also augmented by programs that scan Uighurs’ digital communications to scan for suspect patterns, flag religious speech and even identify a lack of appropriate commitment to using Mandarin.

Xinjiang isn’t the only place where China’s using facial recognition technology to police dissenters, either. In Hong Kong, the police have had access to AI software that can match faces from video footage to police databases for at least three years. While it’s unclear whether the technology is being used to suppress the anti-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the fear of this possibility has led protestors to wear masks, destroy CCTV cameras and engage in other counter-facial recognition measures.

According to the New York Times, China is also exploring using facial recognition technology to sort people by ethnicity and seeking a way to use DNA samples to create images of people’s faces. While the latter technology is being developed in the U.S., some worry that, along with the crackdown on Uighurs and protestors, these technologies could be used to more nefarious ends in China.


The concerns about China’s use of facial recognition technologies to suppress its citizens and reports that both the U.S. and European governments are also deploying facial recognition in policing raise questions about how appropriate government uses of facial recognition are, and how citizens can be protected from abuses.

In the case of China, some suggest stricter regulations to ensure that Western companies don’t wind up being complicit — whether wittingly or not — in other countries’ oppression of their people. Although the U.S. government blacklisted a number of major Chinese companies, including facial recognition technology leaders SenseTime Group Ltd and Megvii Technology Ltd in October 2019, barring them from buying components from U.S. companies without U.S. government approval, there’s no explicit ban on U.S. companies selling technologies with potential surveillance applications to foreign governments.

At the governance level, some cities are pushing back against facial recognition through policy and legal maneuvers (check out our Cities & IoT edition where we first covered this):

  • Portland, Oregon plans to ban facial recognition’s use for both the government and private businesses in the city — which would make its ban the most restrictive one in the U.S.
  • San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley in California and Somerville, Massachusetts have already banned the use of facial recognition by their city government agencies.

Even in China, some are pushing back against the increasing ubiquity of facial recognition technology. Guo Bing, an associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University, recently sued Hangzhou Safari Park for changing its entry system from a fingerprint-based one to a facial recognition-based one. He says the purpose of his lawsuit is to “fight the abuse of facial recognition.”

A framework for Regulating Competition on the Internet

Ben Thompson suggests that three major regulatory issues — Apple’s App Store policies, Facebook’s acquisitions, and Google’s third-party advertising offerings — speak to the need for a new framework for regulating competition on the internet. Everyone who’s interested in making the future of the internet and technology development beneficial to everyone should be interested in this issue.

Making it Easier to Mange and Scale Digital Projects

Organizations looking for effective ways to manage digital projects and deliver the best possible outcomes should implement systematic processes for prototyping, testing, and launching ideas. To this end, the highest-performing organizations use processes that allow for continuous learning and support critical business goals.

The WIRED Guide to Influencers

With more and more people calling themselves “influencers” nowadays, it’s a good time to ask, what, exactly an influencer is. WIRED’s breakdown of this term and what it entails is an excellent guide to the influencer ecosystem.

This Week in Business History

December 9, 1965: CBS airs the first-ever animated adaptation of “Peanuts,” the animated special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

This was the first film incarnation of the popular “Peanuts” comic strip, which had been delivered to American doorsteps daily since October 2, 1950. Although CBS executives originally rejected the idea when it was pitched to them, they eventually came around when they realized that CBS corporation president Frank Stanton was a friend of Charles Schultz and a fan of the comic. Ultimately, the entire half-hour animated special came together in a mere six months and led to more than 45 animated Charlie Brown TV specials. It wound up running annually on CBS for 35 years until ABC acquired the rights in 2001 (a year after Charles Schultz’s death).



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