Last month, a video from a smart doorbell of a delivery man doing a quick hopscotch after dropping off the package went viral. The ease with which it was shared as a lighthearted clip meant to make us smile shows just how normal we see surveillance as part of our daily lives – whether we’re boarding an airplane, shopping or even stopping by someone’s front door.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, surveillance technology is changing, especially facial recognition. The prevalence of masks now has set facial recognition companies scrambling to adapt their technologies to this new norm. Even technologies we may not even think about in our daily life, like unlocking our smart phone with our face, are suddenly hindered. While companies scramble to fix the challenges presented by masks to surveillance technology, the challenge is indicative of a much larger problem we’re facing during this pandemic. Where do we want to go with surveillance technology and, particularly, facial recognition?

Before we go further, a quick rundown on how masks present a challenge to facial recognition: when your face is covered, even just partially, the algorithm that facial recognition technology uses to recognize you is typically less accurate.

The truth is, the pandemic has placed us at a surveillance reckoning point. Governments and health organizations are already looking at facial recognition technologies to trace COVID-19. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Prior to the pandemic, consumers lashed out against facial recognition being used without their knowledge and states took steps to regulate the technology and, in some cases, even ban it. But the issue isn’t black and white. There are critical ways that facial recognition can help during the pandemic, like enabling healthcare workers and other authorized individuals to be recognized and granted access to secured areas without having to remove PPE. But there is also a risk that facial recognition technology will be used to spy on people, people being misidentified and convicted for crimes they didn’t commit, and the question of how such sensitive data is stored.

It’s not that facial recognition is inherently good or bad; it is a technology that needs to be regulated. Regulations need to be put in place to make sure that the technology is actually useful to society without causing harm. Governments must hold companies accountable in the same way that they do with GDPR – making sure that people’s privacy is protected. These kinds of regulations are a win for consumers because it enables them to use technology that makes life more convenient without feeling like they have to give up their privacy and it’s a win for facial recognition technologies because it allows them to instill trust in the public. The pandemic has brought facial recognition back into the forefront; it’s time for regulators to spring into action.

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