In January 2020, Kashmir Hill of The New York Times broke a story about a little-known startup company, Clearview AI, that developed a controversial facial recognition application for policing and government surveillance. The simple application allows users, primarily law enforcement, to upload a subject’s photo to the Clearview AI database, and then receive a name or identity as well as all known public photos of that person. These photos come from a host of locations across the internet including photos that the subject may not know exist such as pictures where they were in the background of a stranger’s photo or someone took their photo without their knowledge or consent. This application became a source of national inquiry and intrigue because Clearview AI has, at the time of this writing, partnered with over 2200 local law enforcement and police departments across the United States and initially had plans to expand into commercial opportunities. Law enforcement officers found the technology to be extremely useful in identifying suspects and breaking open cold cases, but also found the technology to be incredibly invasive into the personal privacy of the general public who likely had no idea that this application existed before the Hill story or that it has already been deployed in departments and agencies in their local communities.
Throughout the world, highly sophisticated surveillance systems like facial recognition are being utilized to track, identify, and direct people in all parts of the world. Recent global events, such as the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 and the continued systemic persecution of religious minorities in nations like China, have challenged how the world thinks about government led technology surveillance. Especially in light of the sheer bravado of companies like Clearview AI to push the ethical bounds of data collection and usage, questions about the ethical use of these technologies for the public good abound in our digital age. These ethical issues include, but are not limited to, personal privacy, bias, discrimination, religious freedom, and the nature of security. For all of the good these systems often provide for society in terms of security and surveillance, how does one weigh the potential abuses and oppressive uses of this technology in light of the Christian moral tradition? And how does the Christian concept of human dignity inform the role of facial recognition surveillance for government use? Drawing on the concept of the image of God, this article argues that the Christian moral tradition provides a clear and compelling path forward for development and utilization of facial recognition tools that can be deployed in ways that honor God and love our neighbors, uphold personal privacy, and protect the innocent.
This article will examine the ethical implications of this controversial new technology, the foundation of personal privacy in both the secular and Christian moral traditions, the role of the face in Christian theology, and the proper place of these tools for governmental use through policing and surveillance in society in line with the Christian concept of human dignity grounded in the imago Dei.
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