Over 50 years ago 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced the world to HAL-9000, a computer with artificial intelligence capabilities, including facial recognition technology. It seemed other-worldly, advanced, and somewhat hard to comprehend.
Today, facial recognition technology (FRT) is, for an alarming number of us, a part of everyday life. From opening up our phones and logging into online banking to having our faces scanned against criminal databases, FRT has grown at an exponential rate. Experts have even predicted that the global facial recognition market will more than double from 3.8 billion USD in 2020 to 8.5 billion USD in 2025.
But just how widespread is facial recognition technology within each country?
To find out, our team of researchers analyzed the top 100 most populated countries around the world for their use of facial recognition technology within the government, police, airports, schools, banking, workplaces, and on buses and trains. Each country was scored 0 to 5 points in each category with 5 being no evidence of use/banned and 0 being invasive use. North Korea was omitted due to lack of clear data.
We also looked at facial recognition use amid the COVID-19 pandemic. How are countries utilizing the technology and what impact does this have on their facial recognition use? For example, many governments and organizations are looking to make as many services contactless as possible. Using facial recognition technology enables them to do that. But will this technology remain in place afterward and what does that mean for our privacy?
Of the 99 countries we found data for:
- Only 6 countries had no evidence of facial recognition use. But, this is likely due to budgets/lack of technology as opposed to strict legislation/opposition to the technology
- Only two countries in the world are known to have banned facial recognition – Belgium and Luxembourg (the latter isn’t part of our study). Morocco’s recent moratorium ended in December 2020 and evidence of the technology being introduced in cities is already appearing
- 7 in 10 governments are using FRT on a large-scale basis
- 70 percent of police forces have access to some form of the technology
- 60 percent of countries have facial recognition in some airports
- Nearly 20 percent of countries have facial recognition in some schools
- Almost 80 percent of countries are using FRT within some of their banking/financial institutions
- Around 40 percent of countries have implemented FRT within some workplaces
- 20 percent of countries have FRT on some buses while 30 percent have it on some trains/subways
- Over 40 percent of countries are using facial recognition in some form to try and track, monitor, or reduce the transmission of COVID-19
The top 10 countries with the most widespread and invasive use of facial recognition
Each country was scored out of 40, with higher scores indicating no or less invasive use of FRT and lower scores highlighting more widespread and invasive use. The following countries received the lowest scores:
- China = 5 out of 40: It’s little surprise that China tops the list with it being frequently quoted as the largest purveyor of facial recognition technology. Its government and police use the technology extensively and often with invasive surveillance tactics. For example, the city of Suzhou used the technology to publicly shame seven people who left their homes in their pajamas. Using FRT to identify them, the city then published the images on its WeChat account. One Chinese park even used FRT to prevent people from stealing toilet paper. And children don’t escape the privacy-threatening technology, either, as schools frequently use the tech to see how attentive students are. If the children appear unfocused, this is then reflected in their grades.
- Russia = 9 out of 40: Russia’s appearance toward the top of the list is perhaps no surprise, either. With facial recognition evident in all of the categories we covered, Russia is another country that’s turning toward facial recognition in many different areas. Recently, protestors were rumored to be identified and detained through FRT ahead of the demonstrations over the jailing of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
- The United Arab Emirates = 10 out of 40: As with many of our top 10 countries, the UAE is rolling out facial recognition across many areas to help “speed up processes” and “eliminate fraud.” From using the technology to gain access to government services to registering attendance at schools, its use across the UAE is widespread. The police in Abu Dhabi have also had their patrol cars upgraded to include FRT in a bid to help them identify “suspicious and wanted people.”
- Japan, India, and Chile = 12 out of 40: All of these countries have some use of FRT across all of the categories we studied. Of greatest concern is Japan’s use of facial recognition alongside citizens’ social media accounts to track down criminals. The National Public Safety Commission (NPC), which is in charge of storing the facial images of around 10 million Japanese citizens, also provided the police access to this database so they could use it with the FRT. In Chile, the majority of citizens will have electronic identity cards that utilize facial recognition by 2022. And in India, there are around 16 different FRT systems in use within Central and State governments, with a further 17 in progress.
- Australia and Brazil = 13 out of 40: Australian police were revealed to be using the controversial facial recognition technology from Clearview (which was found to have used social media images to create its database). Victoria police have since distanced themselves from the technology. Even though the use of FRT by the government and police isn’t as widespread in Brazil, it is on the rise. And the technology is already widely implemented in schools and public transport.
- Argentina = 16 out of 40: In Buenos Aires, reports suggested that FRT was linked to a database that included juvenile suspects. There have also been several stories of people being wrongfully detained following incorrect identification through the real-time facial recognition system. FRT is also in most other areas within Argentina (aside from buses and schools).
- France, Hungary, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom = 17 out of 40: All four of these countries have facial recognition technologies within every category bar one. France, the UK, and Hungary have no known FRT in schools while Malaysia appears not to have installed FRT on buses. All also have widespread or growing use of FRT in the government, police, banking, and within airports, with the tech also growing across public transport systems. That said, in early 2020, the French High Court did rule that FRT shouldn’t be used in high schools.
- Mexico and the United States = 18 out of 40: At present, there is no known facial recognition technology within schools in Mexico. But there is growing or widespread use in all other areas bar buses where systems have been proposed. There is, however, growing use of this technology within the US, but buses don’t appear to have FRT installed as of yet.
- Romania, Spain, and Taiwan = 19 out of 40: Each of these four countries has growing use of facial recognition technology in most areas but all have different areas that remain untouched by the tech at present. For example, Romanian public transport systems, Spanish schools, and Taiwanese buses don’t appear to have FRT.
- Kazakhstan, Sweden, Thailand, and South Africa = 20 out of 40: In most cases, these countries have varying degrees of FRT in each category. But in Sweden, facial recognition technology has been banned in schools.
You can find all of the countries’ scores by category in the table below.
Which countries were the “best in class?”
As mentioned previously, there were a handful of countries where there is no evidence of FRT being in use. However, this may be due to a lack of funding and technology within the area. These countries include Burundi, Cuba, Haiti, Madagascar, South Sudan, and Syria.
We commend Belgium, however, as this is the only country within our study to have a facial recognition ban in place. As mentioned previously, Luxembourg is also known to have banned facial recognition but isn’t one of the top 100 most populated countries in the world. However, even in Belgium, police are permitted to use FRT in certain legal cases (but with greater restrictions/requirements than most other countries).
7 in 10 governments use FRT on a large-scale basis
The vast majority of countries (almost 80 percent) have some government use of facial recognition. 7 in 10 of the governments have growing, widespread, or invasive use of the technology.
The worst countries are China, Uganda, and Myanmar where FRT is being used extensively and with invasive outcomes. We have already mentioned China’s use of the technology to publicly shame people, while, in both Myanmar and Uganda, it is feared the governments are using the technology to track and arrest protestors.
Nearly 70 percent of police forces have access to some form of FRT
Nearly 70 percent of police forces globally have access to some form of FRT. And the majority of those that do have access to the tech do so on a growing or widespread basis.
Five countries–China, Russia, Japan, Argentina, and Belarus–have invasive police use of FRT, as seen in our top 10 analysis. The majority of countries where police have no access to FRT are located in Africa. However, with many of these countries having government access to the technology and/or Safe City schemes being implemented, many of these police forces may be granted access to the technology in the near term.
Over 60 percent of countries have facial recognition in some airports
Over 20 percent of countries have widespread use of facial recognition technology within airports, be this border control and/or check-in processes. A further 40 percent have growing use, while a handful is in the process of testing the technology. As with the majority of FRT, those that lack this technology within airports likely do due to funding/technology issues rather than restrictions around its use.
Nearly 20 percent of countries have facial recognition in some schools
FRT within schools is growing with almost 20 percent of the countries we studied having implemented it in some form or other.
The fact that countries like Australia, Canada, and the US, have growing use of the technology within schools suggests that this may become the norm within other countries in the not-too-distant future. For example, in Canada, one FRT provider created a free tool for schools to try and increase campus safety following school shootings, while several summer camps are also using the tech to keep parents updated on their kids’ vacations.
Almost 80 percent of countries use FRT within some of their banks
The vast majority of countries have FRT within banking facilities, whether this be for logging onto banking apps, making payments, opening accounts, or providing proof of life.
As you can see from the above map, the use of FRT for banking services is widespread in the majority of American, Oceanian, Asian, and European countries, with no evidence of use tending to be in Northern African countries.
Around 40 percent of countries have FRT implemented within some workplaces
In over a quarter of the countries we studied, FRT within the workplace is growing. For example, in the United Kingdom, there are various examples of the technology being used for recruitment, security, and monitoring activity, with large firms like Vodafone and Unilever having it in place. Due to the rise in people working from home, however, Prospect Union has made calls for further legislation and restrictions to protect workers’ privacy.
In China, the technology is already widespread in the workplace with some uses including time attendance and employee movement monitoring.
In other countries, such as Canada and Australia, there are restrictions in place which help keep its use in check to some extent.
20 percent of countries have FRT on some buses
Around 1 in 5 of the countries we looked at have FRT on some of their buses, with five of these countries already having widespread use of the technology on this form of public transport. These countries are Brazil, China, Kazakhstan, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates.
In Brazil, a growing number of cities have implemented FRT as a way to reduce ticket fraud. This includes the cities of Curibita, Salvador, Porto Alegre, and Brasilia. This is also the case in Dubai in the UAE. Elsewhere, in Spain, Madrid’s South Bus Terminal, which sees 20 million visitors each year, has FRT which checks all passengers’ faces against a criminal database. And in Kazakhstan and China, facial recognition is used for bus fare payments.
Over 30 percent of countries have FRT installed on some trains
A larger number of countries have FRT installed on some train services with China, Russia, Chile, India, Australia, France, and Argentina having widespread use.
In India, FRT is being installed across nearly 1,000 stations, while Australia has FRT across various stations, including in Melbourne, and is trialing the technology as part of the NSW Opal card.
Over 40 percent of countries are using facial recognition technology in the fight against COVID-19
We didn’t include the COVID-19 scores in the overall scores, but how do things change when we do?
Below, we can see that a large number of countries have employed the use of FRT in the battle against COVID-19. From creating contactless services and tracking those in quarantine to ensuring social distancing and checking temperatures/mask-wearing, the technology is growing in popularity as a way to help track, monitor, and reduce transmission of the virus.
If we add these scores into the overall scores, the rankings barely change. This is due to the fact that the countries which already employ the largest amounts of FRT tend to have implemented the tech for COVID-19-related purposes. This suggests that once facial recognition is in use within a country, its expansion into other areas is more likely.
As the technology expands at an exponential rate, it’s crucial legislation keeps up with it. Mission creep could allow pandemic-related FRT to remain in place long after the pandemic is over, and be used beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended. But, in many countries, there aren’t adequate laws to protect citizens against the abuse of FRT. Some countries may have “biometrics” included within their data privacy laws but many countries don’t specifically address FRT and its use within their legislation. And, as we’ve already seen, only Belgium and Luxembourg have introduced bans or severe restrictions on its use.
Our study covered the top 100 most populated countries in the world but North Korea was excluded due to a lack of data being available. We then searched through news websites, government sources, and other authority websites to find the use of FRT across nine categories.
Each category was scored from 0 to 5.
0 = Invasive use (use that severely encroaches upon citizens’ privacy)
1 = Widespread use
2 = Growing use or some evident use
3 = Testing the technology and/or have restrictions in place
4 = Discussing the technology but no tests or installations in place
5 = No evidence of use
While we have covered every category in detail, it is possible that FRT may be in use in a category and this hasn’t been publicized or discussed.
To differentiate between police and government use, we looked at Safe City policies and/or biometric IDs, voter registration, and other public services that use FRT for government use and focused on specific police use of the technology (e.g. installation within cities, body cameras, car cameras, or other cameras that are used solely by the police). In some cases, police may have access to the images/cameras in use by the government but unless specific sources of police use were found, the scores haven’t been carried over into this category so as to avoid duplication.
In the COVID-19 category, we focused on government/countrywide use rather than individual businesses or small projects.
For a full list of sources, click here.
Data researcher: George Moody