UTSoftwareHow this could be lethal
UTSoftwareHow this could be lethal
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How this could be lethal

The US is developing drones with facial recognition software: How this could be lethal

The new drones with facial recognition will be used by the US Air Force for overseas missions and for gathering intelligence and other operations. Image used for representational purposes/Reuters

Remember the Tom Cruise-starrer Minority Reports where flying machines identified people and shot at them? It seems reel life has inspired real life with the United States developing drones set up with facial recognition software.

According to a report by the New Scientistthe US Air Force has signed a contract worth $729,056 (Rs 6.03 crore) with Seattle-based firm RealNetworks to integrate its Secure Accurate Facial Recognition (SAFR) platform with Air Force drones.

What is this software? How will it function on drones? What are the implications of such a device? We take a closer look and give you all the answers.

SAFR tech and the US Air Force contract

RealNetworks, the Seattle-based company behind the tech, explains SAFR as ‘a visual intelligence platform specializing in face and person-based computer vision optimized for real-world performance’.

The company touts their software to have a 99.87 per cent accuracy in facial recognition and also has the ability to recognize faces from one km away. According to the contract that they have signed with the US Air Force, the company will now integrate their facial recognition software on to small drones which will be used by special operations abroad and for gathering intelligence.

The firm has said that the uncrewed craft will use artificial intelligence (AI) to fly itself and discriminate between friend and foe. It also added that the drones could be used for rescue missions, perimeter protection and domestic search operations.

It is important to note here that the smaller drones that are being considered aren’t armed like their bigger counterparts such as the Reaper or Predator. However, it does present new possibilities for America’s drone warfare.

Not the first time

No matter how futuristic it sounds, the US Air Force drone system isn’t the only one to try to use facial recognition.

In 2021, the United Nations claims that Libyan troops had equipped drones with weapons and facial recognition software. The 2021 report stated that Libyan prime minister Faiez Serraj had ordered advanced drones and at least one Turkish-made STM Kargu-2 quadcopter loaded with loitering munitions, and apparently facial recognition, into the air to go after opposing forces.

A 2021 Forbes report also stated that Israel was designing drones with facial recognition. The report stated that Tel Aviv-based AnyVision had filed a patent back in August 2019 in the US, detailing tech to help a drone find the best angles for a facial recognition shot, before trying to find a match for the target by referring to faces stored in a database. It was titled, “Adaptive positioning of drones for enhanced facial recognition”.

Also read: Is Iran becoming the chief producer of cheap but lethal drones?

AnyVision CEO Avi Golan speaking to Forbes at the time had said that while they didn’t have any in-production drones with facial recognition, they would be a reality soon.

In Dubai, the police are even using drones equipped with facial recognition to track trackless drivers.

The US is developing drones with facial recognition software. How this could be lethal
Facial recognition software is prone to errors, and there are significant questions concerning the morality and legality of using face recognition technology on military drones. Image used for representational purposes/Reuters

Implications of the new tech

Privacy experts are worried about the repercussions of such technology. Jake Wiener, a lawyer with the digital privacy organization EPIC, tweeted: “Big huge NOPE to everything here”, in reaction to the development.

Skeptics fear that such a tech integration — of an AI-powered airborne robot affixed with face recording tech — would make it easier to carry out clandestine and lethal activities without any accountability.

Nicholas Davis, an industry professor of emerging technology at the University of Technology Sydney, told Newsweek: “There are innumerable ethical implications, from the way such devices might redistribute power or threaten groups within a society, to the ways in which they threaten established international humanitarian law in conflict zones.”

The US is developing drones with facial recognition software. How this could be lethal
There have been several arguments against the use of drones in strikes and raids. Image files/Reuters

Lily Hamourtziadou, a senior lecturer in criminology and security studies at Birmingham City University in the UK, in the same Newsweek the article was quoted as saying, “Remote killing in many ways is easy killing: a kind of virtual, video-game killing. This in itself is morally problematic. Moreover, when a killing is attributed to a machine, there is a lack of accountability and justice, and violence is used with impunity.”

There are also worries over the accuracy of facial recognition software. Facial recognition software is notoriously faulty and prone to errors, which makes it even more likely that the wrong person could be targeted in such attacks.

However, despite these moral conundrums, some experts note that there are benefits to using this technology. They cite that using such technology would cut losses, as few soldiers would be put in danger.

The argument now lies in whether the pros outdo the cons on such technology. But, who decides? And at the time when drone warfare was only increasing, especially as seen in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, it is a concern that we must look at.

With input from agencies

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