The ethical questions that haunt facial-recognition research

Microsoft told Nature that it has filed to dismiss the case, and Clearview says it “searches only publicly available information, like Google or any other search engine”. Other firms did not respond to requests for comment.

Vulnerable populations

In the study on Uyghur faces published by Wiley1, the researchers didn’t gather photos from online, but said they took pictures of more than 300 Uyghur, Korean and Tibetan 18–22-year-old students at Dalian Minzu University in northeast China, where some of the scientists worked. Months after the study was published, the authors added a note to say that the students had consented to this. But the researchers’ assertions don’t assuage ethical concerns, says Yves Moreau, a computational biologist at the Catholic University of Leuven. He sent Wiley a request to retract the work last year, together with the Toronto-based advocacy group Tech Inquiry.

It’s unlikely that the students were told enough about the purpose of the research to have given truly informed consent, says Moreau. But even if they did freely consent, he argues, human-rights abuses in Xinjiang mean that Wiley ought to retract the study to avoid giving the work academic credence.

Moreau has catalogued dozens of papers on Uyghur populations, including facial-recognition work and studies that gathered Uyghur people’s DNA. In December, he wrote an opinion article in Nature[8] calling for all unethical work in biometric research to be retracted7.

His campaign has had some impact, but not quite to the extent he’d hoped. Publishers say the key issue is checking whether participants in studies gave informed consent. Springer Nature, for instance, said in December 2019 that it would investigate papers of concern on vulnerable groups along these lines, and that it had updated its guidance to editors and authors about the need to gain explicit and informed consent in studies that involve clinical, biomedical or biometric data from people. This year, the publisher retracted two papers on DNA sequencing8,9 because the authors conceded that they hadn’t asked Uyghur people for their consent, and it has placed expressions of concern on 28 others.

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