Emotion Recognition Technology — a new challenge to privacy

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Emotion Recognition Technology — a new challenge to privacy

Saturday, 11 September 2021 | Majid Durrani

Emotion Recognition Technology’, yes, it is a thing, in the ever-evolving technology landscape. Emotion Recognition Technology (“ERT”) is an emerging technology which seeks to recognize and categorize the myriad human emotions depicted by humans through their facial features into certainbroad categories of seemingly universal human emotions which then will be captured through cameras and then read and processed through machine learning and used by the Governments for various purposes.

It is already happening in India, when under ‘Mission Shakti’ the Police in Lucknow deployed many close in cameras to capture the facial expressions of women seemingly in distress which then will alertthe police to take pre-emptive actions and prevent crimes. This move raised the hackles of social media activists and civil society bodies as being infringing the personal life and privacy of person in question. This issue deserves a closer examination.

To set context ERT similar to facial recognition technology in which with the help of close in cameras, big data and machine learning the government or private entities intends to appropriate motives, basis which then be deployed to various use cases such as security threat in public places, attentiveness in a classroom etc.

ERT is based on the premise arrived at through a study conducted by American Psychologist, Paul Ekman that all various and myriad human emotions can be broadly classified into seven universal emotions irrespective of their social and cultural context. They are happiness, sadness, anger, disgust,contempt, fear and surprise. This theory seminal at the time, when it was postulated is the basis of most of the ERT projects and use cases.

However, it has now been debunked by many subsequent studies by psychologists and researchers such as James Russell a psychologist of Boston College who through rigorous research concluded thatthat the manifestation of emotions on the face of human is not as universal as it is thought out to be.Many other studies followed which have debunked the universal emotion theory. An article published in The Washington Post, stated that in a research conducted by Association for Psychological Sciencewhich spent two years exploring this idea after reviewing more than 1,000 studies, concluded that the relationship between facial expression and emotion is ‘nebulous, convoluted and far from universal’. Many other similar credible research studies claim similarly, however going into the details of those studies is beyond the pale of this Article.

That the very basis of ERT is built on dubious scientific theory is now beyond doubt, however the more worrisome part of the problem lies in the continued usage of this dubious scientific argument to push the different use cases of ERT and thus bringing into question the legality of the use of the ERT and of course accompanying very valid concerns of privacy and its invasion. As of today, the most popular use cases of ERT are mass surveillance for national and internal security, monitoring activities in enclosed spaces such as classrooms, shopping malls, casinos, workplaces, policing and hiring processes.

The writer is a Technology and Commercial Lawyer, with keen interest in law and emerging technologies.

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