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At CES 2020, surveillance tech will find a prime spot to make its pitch

Companies want to bring facial recognition to the mainstream, sparking concerns from privacy advocates.

Facial recognition technology

CyberLink debuted its facial recognition technology in 2019 at CES -- and it's looking forward to returning in 2020.

David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

CES last January marked the first time the Consumer Tech Association recognized cybersecurity and personal privacy as a product category, highlighting antivirus and smart home security systems at the annual trade show. 

There, the CTA, which organizes the massive Las Vegas event, gave Chinese voice recognition company iFlytek an innovation award in the "Tech for a Better World" category. Ten months later, the US Commerce Department placed the company, along with Hikvision -- the world's largest supplier of surveillance cameras, whose US arm Ezviz was another CES award winner -- on a blacklist for human rights violations related to the privacy of Uighur Muslims in China. 

The two were slated to return to CES 2020 until this month, just weeks before the show. Ezviz said on Friday that it's no longer attending the show, and iFlytek is no longer listed on the CES site. 

The awkward turnabout illustrates the tricky line that conferences like CES must walk as they attempt to both champion privacy -- a growing issue with consumers -- and attract surveillance companies whose innovations may curtail those liberties. The CTA isn't alone in this, as regulators wrestle with how to place limits on massive tech companies and their access to our information while preserving their competitiveness on the world stage. 

CTA President Gary Shapiro

CTA President Gary Shapiro, at a press event in New York in November, discusses the need to highlight technology's benefits. 

Alfred Ng / CNET

At a New York press event in November, CTA President Gary Shapiro described how innovations could be abused -- naming devices like hammers, cars and planes -- but advocated for focusing on their benefits instead. 

"What we have to do, and our challenge as a nation, is to balance the legitimate progress that we expect as people -- human rights -- against the fact that there is an economic challenge going on on data-driven services around artificial intelligence," Shapiro said at the event. 

In a statement following Shapiro's remarks, the CTA said it showcases "companies with leading edge technologies including facial recognition." 

"The CES conference program also provides a platform for critical discussions around the use of technologies," the CTA said. "At CES 2020, industry leaders and policy makers will discuss key topics including privacy."

But unlike established giants such as Facebook and Google, the field of facial recognition is still new and in its Wild West stage. A review of CES' exhibitor directory found that at least nine facial recognition companies will be at the trade show, while eight other surveillance technology companies are expected to appear. 

CES itself is introducing facial recognition for its 2020 show: Attendees can volunteer to use it to pick up their badges. 

The show represents an opportunity for surveillance companies to make their case to the public, while activists and lawmakers raise concerns about the erosion of privacy and civil rights.

"The more this technology is normalized at events like this, the harder it is to educate people about the risks associated with it," said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future.

Facial recognition's spread 

While activists who believe facial recognition poses a threat to civil liberties and privacy in public spaces are pushing to curtail the spread of the technology, mass adoption is exactly the goal in mind for facial recognition companies showcasing at the show. 

"At CES, there is a great chance for the developers of facial recognition technology to demonstrate to the public how this kind of AI can improve daily life," Dan Grimm, the general manager of RealNetwork's facial recognition business, SAFR, said in an interview. "I think CES is an exciting place to see how that is happening." 

It's a lucrative new market for biometrics data. ABI Research, a global tech market advisory firm, estimates that biometric hardware revenue will jump to $19 billion by 2024, thanks to the adoption of surveillance technology. 

The trade show will be a giant opportunity for facial recognition companies to implement their technology. Their surveillance technology is already being used by hundreds of schools, malls, police departments, casinos, restaurants and locks, but there are more places facial recognition could be, the companies said. 

Consumer electronic surveillance

CES 2019 was a major boost for CyberLink, a Taiwanese company best known for its video-editing software.

The company debuted its facial recognition software to the 175,000 people who visited CES last year. The showcase was a hit for CyberLink, according to Richard Carriere, the company's senior vice president of global marketing. He said CyberLink got a "very high number of interested people" because of CES.

unveiled-signage-1

CES is one of the most influential tech events of the year, and facial recognition companies are hoping to use it to win over public audiences.

CES

The company is looking forward to returning in January 2020 and showing off even more of its facial recognition capabilities CES had helped make facial recognition more publicly accepted, Carriere said.

"CES is a very good place for that," he said. "It introduces new technology. More and more, facial recognition will become a big component of internet of things solutions of all kinds." 

CyberLink started developing its facial recognition software in 2018 after it released an app in 2014 called YouCam MakeUp, which let people virtually try on makeup. 

Rather than developing its own camera, CyberLink focused on creating software that could be outfitted on any camera already in place, hoping to ensure an easy setup process for businesses and governments. 

The company would like to put its facial recognition in malls under its SmartRetail program, through which cameras can identify returning customers as well as blacklist unwanted visitors. 

At CES, Carriere said CyberLink plans to show off facial recognition in kiosks for mobile payments and home security. 

The company also partnered with police in Taiwan, providing a database to identify people in real time. 

"The entire police force in the country have our technology in their smartphones and it connects to databases they have with pictures of people," Carriere said. "They know if it's a law-abiding citizen or potentially someone with a not-so-nice past."

RealNetwork's SAFR will also be showcasing its facial recognition capabilities to any companies interested in adding the technology to their connected devices. It's mainly focused on marketing to businesses that can implement the tech for security systems or entryways, Grimm said.

In 2018, the company started offering its facial recognition to public schools for free, and about two dozen schools are using it, Grimm said. More than 700 schools have expressed interest, he added. 

It works as an entry notification system, verifying parents looking to pick up their kids (children are not captured by the facial recognition system). Only parents registered who upload their photos for the school have their faces detected, the company said. 

It's also partnered with police, but SAFR declined to name which departments it's working with. 

Privacy and political concerns

Lawmakers, however, have raised serious concerns about facial recognition, and it's a rare bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill. Research shows the technology is still flawed, exhibiting racial and gender bias, and cities like San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, have banned government use of the technology. 

Last month, Shapiro warned against overregulation. While there are privacy concerns in China, he noted European companies have fallen behind in technology because of the European Union's strict privacy rules.

That's reflected in panels scheduled for CES 2020 like "Innovation and Privacy: How We Keep Both" and "Protecting Privacy and Security in an AI World." There aren't any panels directly related to facial recognition and its consequences for civil liberties and privacy listed, though the card is subject to change.

But companies like Hikvision and iFlytek offer examples of how the technology could be used to violate human rights, and researchers worry they're using shows like CES to clean up their public image

award.png

CES awarded iFlytek in its "Tech for a Better World" category in 2019.

Alfred Ng via CES

In November, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, called on the CTA to bar iFlytek and Hikvision from CES.

Ezviz said its decision to skip CES wasn't at CES' request. 

"Due to an adjustment of the company's marketing strategy, EZVIZ decided not to exhibit this time. CTA has been informed of and agreed on this change," an Ezviz spokeswoman said in an email. 

While iFlytek isn't listed on the site, it's unclear if iFlytek backed out on its own or at the CTA's request. The CTA said it doesn't comment on individual companies not exhibiting at CES. 

Facial recognition's limits

Both SAFR and Cyberlink said they understand the privacy concerns surrounding their technology, but believe its benefits are more helpful for society. 

"There is great positive impact associated with generating specific insights around the spaces and people I care about," Grimm said.

They note that it provides convenience for customers and security, and chalk up worries to misunderstandings. 

"This is something where the benefits far outweigh the concerns," CyberLink's Carriere said. "When people understand the benefits, it will help." 

He pointed out that people have already become accustomed to Face ID to unlock Apple devices, and believes that facial recognition will eventually be everywhere. 

And that's what worries privacy advocates.

"If it starts to become a normal part of people's lives in these low-priority scenarios, it doesn't set off alarm bells in ways that it should in much more problematic uses," said Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Constitution Project.

Facial recognition isn't perfect -- it can identify the wrong person, or not work if you're in low-light situations. In a mall, a 10 percent error rate might mean not getting a discount you were supposed to get. But in a law enforcement scenario, that would mean one in 10 people arrested because of facial recognition get charged by mistake.

"We've reached a very problematic point where this tech has made huge leaps in the last eight years, so it's incredibly easy to deploy in some areas, but it's still incredibly undeveloped and unreliable in other areas," Laperruque said. "These presentations don't show the gap where it's actually reliable in the world and where it's not."

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