Watch: Malta is putting the cart before the horse in facial recognition – Gege Gatt

“The right to privacy is sacrosanct and the right to internet access and rights emanating from that should be constitutionally protected”. This strong statement by Dr Gege Gatt, CEO of EBO Group Inc was the first in a series of warning shots related to the project of facial recognition being proposed by government as part of crime control in certain hot spots.

“God forbid that government should introduce some sort of surveillance without a legal and ethical framework for its operation” said Gatt when replying to repeated prodding by Follow Up presenter Fr Joe Borg in a discussion on Artificial Intelligence.

Referring to the current project proposal for facial recognition which government is proposing and which Prime Minister Muscat referred to in his budget speech, Gatt said that it infringes the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) since under these regulations, anyone whose image is captured is required to give consent. The proposed project invades the privacy not only of criminals but on all those whose image is captured. Gatt said that government needs to be governed by a suitable legal and ethical framework which guards privacy through ensuring a justified surveillance and through having consent. Describing the current proposal being considered by government as half-baked, Gatt said that a wide consultation base is required and The Malta I T Legal Association, MITLA, has taken clear stand on the matter. MITLA had made it clear that specific laws were required for mass-scale facial recognition and that the processing of biometric data through facial recognition tools is subject to a stricter legal regime under GDPR. Quoting a study held in the UK, Gatt said that in 90% of cases there was a mismatch between name and face. This could have devastating consequences of job applications or fiscal returns for say, a person who has been wrongly matched to a criminal. Explaining further the risks here, Gatt said that the problem lies with the data held and its subsequent use, giving as an example the refusal of insurance to a person whose street grabs on surveillance camera showed him to be always smoking.

“We need to create a public debate to see what level of surveillance is considered as acceptable, then we need to see best practices in Europe and finally match these up to produce a robust legal and ethical framework to achieve the desired ends” said Gatt.

Cybersecurity of paramount importance

While AI does not have a magic wand to sort all ills. When one sees threats to national security, these are no longer best exemplified in a scenario of invading armies but rather a scenario of digital attacks on banks or ion important economic sectors such as igaming. Hacking attacks are the most ominous of all invasions and they could bring the country to its knees. “If someone were to shut down the sector for three days”, said Gatt, “Malta would be bankrupt in 2 months”. Which explains the heavy investment in cybersecurity.As a Malta delegate on the EPE – the Europol Platform for Experts and specifically EDEN the Europol Data Protection Experts Network, Gatt said that Malta’s accession to the EU has enabled it to have access to the latest developments and keep cybersecurity beefed up.

A future for Terminator and Sophia?

AI is not best portrayed by robots, said Gatt, describing them as ‘rather a bit of a caricature of AI”

Currently, said Gatt, the world is into the second, more focussed phase of AI where computers can decipher language. This is best exemplified by verbal human orders to computers which are translated and acted upon, such as house management. In this way, the automation of certain jobs gives dignity back to workers in that it gives them the opportunity of more creative work.

One of the sectors which Gatt and his company EBO are very active in is the health sector. He described how one project looks at hospital appointments and seeks to give the best service from setting the actual appointment, enabling cancellation, reminders including additional material which the clients may need to take with them to the appointment and finally, to round off the experience, an evaluation of the appointment. This is a vast business change which can channel millions into other sectors of health care, said Gatt.

Ethics and ethical behaviour, said Gatt, need to be underlined as, he emphasised, this is a mechanical paradigm and if a bias is built into the system, the output will be biased too.

EBO is not a Maltese company, said Gege Gatt but rather a digital company currently located in Malta with operations in the UK and soon in the US. Frontiers are the last thing an entrepreneur should consider when setting up a business.