Facial Recognition and Digital World: technology at the service of convenience?

How many of us unlock our smartphones, make an online payment, authorize the download of an app and/or access a web portal simply by bringing the mobile device closer to our face? How easily do we "tag" our friends in our pictures on the most well-known social networks? And again: how many and what advantages may be obtained from knowing the number of passers-by who stop, even if just for a moment, to look at a billboard?

Statistics show that facial recognition technology is at the service of a digital world that "runs" faster and faster and which forces us to keep up with the times. But at what price for the protection of our personal data?

1. Introduction

Social networks, e-commerce websites, online magazines, home banking and mobile apps: there are millions of digital services available online that we can use through the creation of personal accounts.

When creating profiles, the most widespread trend, especially among young people, is to rely on easy and intuitive passwords (such as date of birth or first name) which are not so secure from an IT point of view and often identical for all the services those people use[1].

In order to deal with these bad habits - which only feed the already high number of data breaches – it has now become common to use so-called "facial recognition" technology (in Italian, "riconoscimento facciale"): this is a type of IT process that associates the features of a person's face with a digital image and stores that image in an electronic device for the purpose of reusing it not only as a means of identification but also for the authentication, verification and/or profiling of individuals.

But is it really always safe to rely on facial recognition? Does a biometric system always guarantee sufficient protection of our personal data?

2. The most frequent uses of facial recognition technology

It’s well known that different biometric techniques lend themselves to being used mainly in the IT context (for example, for authenticating access to a device) and the trend of the main high-tech companies is to invest ever greater amounts of money in this field.

However, facial recognition is also used outside the digital world: take for example the use of biometric systems for the control of physical access to reserved areas, for the opening of gates or for the use of dangerous devices and machinery.

But that's not all. Facial recognition techniques are also capable of serving public authorities and even research. The police in New Delhi has in fact tested facial recognition to identify almost 3,000 missing children; some researchers have used it to detect a rare genetic disease found in subjects from Africa, Asia and Latin America[2].

Faced with such a large number of uses of facial recognition, it is worrying that in our country a specific national legislation on this matter has not yet been enacted. Indeed, agreeing to the detection and collection of the features of our face by a data controller means sharing with the latter a wide range of personal data and exposing ourselves to the processing that the controller decides to make of such data.

Think about a simple "selfie" made with our smartphone: in these cases our device collects our personal image and stores it in a memory. Or again think about passing in front of billboards that detect our presence, the measurement of our body temperature using video and digital thermometers or the boarding systems with video-recognition installed in the largest airports of the world.

3. A quick vademecum for the processing of biometric data

The biometric characteristics of a face that allow for the unique identification of a natural person fall within the notion of "biometric data" provided by European Regulation no. 679/2016 ("GDPR")[3]. In fact, biometric data is defined by the GDPR as data "resulting from specific technical processing relating to the physical, physiological or behavioural characteristics of a natural person, which allow or confirm the unique identification of that natural person"[4]. This means that an image / a photograph is not always qualifiable as biometric data if it is not processed through specific technical means that allow for the unique identification or authentication of a natural person[5].

Biometric data also fall within the category of "special categories of personal data" pursuant to art. 9 of GDPR (referred to by art. 2-septies of Legislative Decree no. 196/2003 - "Privacy Code") and can be processed only when the data controller complies with certain legal obligations. Let's try to list some of these obligations here below:

A. Compliance with the fundamental principles of the processing. In an increasingly digital world, the principles of "privacy by design" (data protection by design) and "privacy by default" (data protection by default) provided for by art. 25 GDPR play a leading role[6]. In order to comply with these principles, starting from the design and definition phases of the processing tools the data controllers who use facial recognition for the processing of personal data must provide adequate security measures to ensure the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals as well as the compliance with the principles set out in Article 5 of GDPR.

Specifically, attention should be paid to the principle of "data minimization" which requires the data controller to configure a biometric recognition system in order to collect and process only a limited number of information, excluding the acquisition of additional data that is not necessary for the purpose to be achieved in the specific case (for example, if the purpose of the processing is that of computer authentication, biometric data should not be processed in such a way as to infer any information of a sensitive nature belonging to the data subject including, for example, clearly visible skin diseases).

B. Information notice. The data controller must provide the data subjects with a privacy notice in accordance with art. 13 of GDPR, which, in a clear and transparent manner, indicates the purposes of the processing, the security measures that have been adopted, the possible centralization of the biometric data that has been collected, the storage periods of the personal data. In this regard, it is appropriate to point out that, as clarified by the Italian data protection Authority[7], such privacy notice has to be delivered before the so-called "enrolment" phase which take place before the creation of a biometric sample[8].

C. Legal basis of the processing. The data controller must ask for the prior consent of the data subjects in order to process their biometric data, or alternatively the data controller should assess the possibility of relying on another legal basis under Article 9 of the GDPR (including, for example, the existence of reasons of public interest in the area of public health, such as the protection against serious cross-border threats to health).

D. DPIA. As provided for by art. 35 of the GDPR and Annex 1 to Provision no. 467/2018 of the Italian data protection Authory, the data controller must assess the impact of the processing of biometric data and specifically assess the risks that such processing may entail for the rights and freedoms of individuals and, at the same time, identify the security measures adopted and to be adopted to address these risks.

E. Appointment of the data processor. Where the data controller engages a third party for the processing of biometric data, the latter must be appointed as "data processor" pursuant to art. 28 of GDPR, following the verification of the third-party's possession of suitable guarantees for the protection of the rights of the data subjects whose biometric data is processed.

F. The implementation of alternative systems. The data controller must offer alternative solutions that do not involve the processing of biometric data, without imposing restrictions or additional costs to the data subject. Such alternative solutions are necessary especially for those who are not able to comply with the constraints imposed by a biometric system (think about a disabled person who is not able to reach, with his face, the height of a thermoscanner) and in case such device is unavailable due to technical problems (for example, in case of malfunction).

4. Conclusions

The applicable data protection regulations are not and should never be considered as an obstacle to the development of new technologies applied to the IT and digital industry. On the contrary, compliance with existing legislation should be an incentive for creating practical solutions in a way that respects the confidentiality of our information.

This should also be the case for facial recognition technology, in relation to which it is important to make users aware of the security of the processing of their personal data. Also because generating awareness means gaining trust from consumers, which is the first step for a correct marketing strategy.

Just as Apple has done with the recent update to "iOS 14" which allows the owners of the latest mobile devices to know - through different color indicators (green and orange) that appear on the status bar of the device - if an installed app is using the camera and then detecting the user's image.

On the other hand, the protection of our personal data must never be sacrificed. And to do this, in our opinion, it is essential that our country enact regulations governing this technology. The added values that facial recognition is able to provide to our economy are in fact under the eyes of everyone for a long time, but if we do not act at the regulatory level in the short term the risk is to have to face in a few years the development and uncontrolled use of these technical solutions, with the consequence of having to spend time and economic resources to solve multiple problems rather than bringing about new advantages.


[1] This is confirmed by an interesting (and worrying, for all of us) study that was published during the “Safer Internet Day”, according to which more than half of Italian millennials (55%) uses the same password to access different services and 19% uses extremely simple passwords such as a numbered sequence.

[2] Also noteworthy is the new project "Telefi" funded by the European Commission and called "Towards the European Level Exchange of Facial Images" (TELEFI). It is a study on the benefits that the use of facial recognition can provide to crime investigation in EU Member States and the exchange of data collected within the "Prüm" system, through which DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data are exchanged between EU countries to combat cross-border crime, terrorism and illegal migration.

[3] Classic examples of biometric data, in addition to the characteristics of the face, are: the fingerprints, handwritten signature placement dynamics, the retinal vein pattern, the iris shape, the characteristics of the voice emission.

[4] See, for more details, the Opinion of the Working Party ex art. 29 (now replaced by the “European Data Protection Board”) no. 2/2012 - https://www.pdpjournals.com/docs/87997.pdf.

[5] See Recital no. 51 GDPR.

[6] See “Guidelines no. 4/2019 on Article 25 Data Protection by Design and by Default” - Version 2.0 Adopted on 20 October 2020.

[7] See on this matter “Guidelines on biometric recognition and graphometric signature” issued by the Italian data protection Authority on 12 November 2014.

[8] With the term "enrolment" it is understood the process through which a subject is accredited to the biometric system, through the acquisition of one of its biometric characteristic. Indeed, to enable biometric recognition is necessary to acquire the biometric characteristic by way of a procedure ensuring that biometric enrolment is performed appropriately, that the link with the capture subject is retained, and that the quality of the resulting biometric sample is safeguarded. Generally, the facial biometric sample is used to extract, via algorithms that are sometimes based on so-called “neural networks”, a given set of features such as the location of eyes, nose, nostrils, chin and ears in order to build up a biometric template.