Facial Recognition Technology Is Being Used To Find Missing Children

Facial recognition technology has the potential to do wonderful things, but it can also severely impact our privacy.
Marcia Wendorf

It's every parent's worst nightmare, their child goes missing. In 2009, three-year-old Gui Hao went missing from his family's wine shop in Guang'an City in Sichuan Province, China.

In December 2017, a facial recognition system created by Youtu Lab, a division of Tencent, was introduced into the Sichuan Provincial Public Security Department. The system uses artificial intelligence (AI) to detect gender and age in photographs.


Experts within the Sichuan police adopted an innovative approach, they used machines to teach other machines, training a neural network to recognize human faces, regardless of age, to an accuracy of greater than 96%.

In 2019, using the new technology, authorities found Gui Hao in Guangdong Province and reunited him with his family.

In April 2018, police in New Delhi, India began using a new facial recognition system to search for the incredibly high number of missing children in that city, 45,000. In all of India, almost 200,000 children are missing.

The new facial recognition system uses machine learning to identify similarities in faces seen on different pictures. Since it's inauguration, police have found 2,930 of the missing children.

Amazon's Rekognition

Amazon's new facial recognition system, Rekognition, is being used by police in Orlando, Florida to search through footage from the city’s many video surveillance cameras.

Washington County, Oregon has built a Rekognition-based mobile app that is being used by its police. Officers can submit an image to the county’s database of 300,000 faces, and the system will search for a match.

Amazon Go store in Seattle
Amazon Go store in Seattle, Source: SounderBruce/Wikimedia Commons

According to a Huffington Post article, Rekognition can identify "all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports." It is also capable of recognizing up to 100 people in a single picture.

In May 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent an open letter to Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to stop Amazon's contributions to government surveillance. The letter included this: "Local police could use it [Rekognition] to identify political protesters captured by officer body cameras. With Rekognition, Amazon delivers these dangerous surveillance powers directly to the government."

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A 2016 study by Georgetown University's Law Center on Privacy and Technology found that the faces of more than 117 million Americans are already included in government facial recognition databases that are used by law enforcement.

The study found that the faces of half of all U.S. adults are in such databases and that 25% of state and local law enforcement agencies are already running facial recognition searches.

Even more troubling, the study found a lack of oversight on the use of photo databases, and that 26 U.S. states permit law enforcement to query the photos and information contained on driver's licenses.

"Big Brother" in LA?

According to the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition website, police in that city are employing surveillance cameras with highly accurate facial recognition software, license plate readers, drones, police body cameras, and even Stingrays and DRT boxes to spy on its citizens.

Facial Recognition Technology Is Being Used To Find Missing Children
Source: georgeclerk/iStock

Both Stingrays and DRT boxes simulate cell phone towers so that cell phones connect with them rather than the actual towers. The devices can be mounted on aircraft to collect information from cell phones that are believed to be used for criminal activity. The devices can also be used to jam cell phones.

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition asserts that the LAPD is "crunch[ing] crime statistics and other data with algorithms to 'predict' when and where future crimes are most likely to occur." If this sounds an awful lot to you a lot like Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, you're not alone.

Vehicle recognition

Maryland company Rekor's vehicle recognition software not only recognizes license plates, it also is able to identify a vehicle's make, model, color and year. Since 2017, a quarter of all children who were recued after being kidnapped was because someone from the public recognized the vehicle involved in the kidnapping.

Robert Lowery of NCMEC noted that "Rekor’s AI will leverage technology to help find those cars even more quickly so we can bring children safely home." Rekor is offering free licenses to law enforcement and other agencies involved with recovering abducted children.

In spite of all these concerns by privacy advocates about facial recognition technology, a spokesperson for India's National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) told The Independent newspaper that, "If such a type of software helps trace missing children and reunite them with their families, nothing can be better than this."

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