The ethical questions that haunt facial-recognition research

But on other issues, academics were split. Around 40% of the scientists in the survey felt that researchers should get informed consent from individuals before using their faces in a facial-recognition data set, but more than half felt that this wasn’t necessary. The researchers’ dilemma is that it’s hard to see how they can train accurate facial-recognition algorithms without vast data sets of photos, says Sébastien Marcel, who leads a biometrics group at the Idiap Research Institute in Martigny, Switzerland. He thinks that researchers should get informed consent — but in practice, they don’t. His own group doesn’t crawl the web for images, but it does use online image data sets that others have compiled. “A lot of researchers don’t want to hear about this: they consider it not their problem,” he says.

Ed Gerstner, director of journal policy at Springer Nature, said the publisher was considering what it could do to discourage the “continued use” of image databases that don’t have explicit consent for their use in research from the people in the images.

Nature’s survey also asked researchers whether they felt that facial-recognition research on vulnerable populations — such as refugees or minority groups that were under heavy surveillance — could be ethically questionable, even if scientists had gained informed consent. Overall, 71% agreed; some noted it might be impossible to determine whether consent from vulnerable populations was informed, making it potentially valueless.

Some of those who disagreed, however, tried to draw a distinction between academic research and how facial recognition is used. The focus should be on condemning and restricting unethical applications of facial recognition, not on restricting research, they said.

Ethicists regard that distinction as naive. “That’s the ‘I’m just an engineer’ mentality — and we’re well past that now,” says Karen Levy, a sociologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who works on technology ethics.

Some of the respondents in China said that they were offended by the question. “You should not say that in Xinjiang some groups are detained in camps,” wrote one. Just under half of the 47 Chinese respondents felt that studies on vulnerable groups could be ethically questionable even if scientists had gained consent, a lower proportion than respondents from the United States and Europe (both above 73%).

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