Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of Mahsa Amini protests in Iran. They started when the country’s morality police arrested the young woman for allegedly violating the country’s hijab laws. She later died in custody, supposedly from being severely beaten.
The protests have already had many terrible consequences for the people of Iran, and now comes another one. Iranian government agency indicated that the country would use facial recognition to target and identify women who “fail to observe hijab laws,” among other things.
This particular story started when a photo of a young Iranian woman without a hijab circulated on social media. She went to work at a Tehran amusement park Sarzamineh Shadi (Land of Happiness), without wearing her hijab. Someone took a photo of her, posted it on social media, and the amusement park was reportedly closed after that, according to multiple sources. They claim that prosecutors in Tehran have opened an investigation against the woman for not complying with hijab laws.
To those cheering because of a vague statement that the morality police may have stopped operating:
The amusement park where this woman worked has been closed after a photo of working without hijab circulated on social media. Tehran’s prosecution has opened a case against her. pic.twitter.com/KBdxR9DmDc
— Shadi Sadr (@shadisadr) December 5, 2022
This leads us to the facial recognition system, which has reportedly been in the works for a while. As WIRED notes, Iranian lawmakers suggested last year that morality police should use face recognition to ID the women disobeying the hijab law. The head of an Iranian government agency that enforces morality law said that the technology would be used “to identify inappropriate and unusual movements,” including “failure to observe hijab laws.” He said that individuals “could be identified by checking faces against a national identity database to levy fines and make arrests.” Only two weeks later, Mahsa Amini died and the historic protests began.
After the protests heated up, leading to thousands of arrests and hundreds of deaths, Iran’s morality police were reportedly disbanded. However, some sources note that this isn’t really the case, and others claim that “another group could take over this task of controlling women in public.”
Is facial recognition already being used in Iran?
Mahsa Alimardani, who researches freedom of expression in Iran at the University of Oxford, says that she heard from women in Iran who received citations in the mail for violating hijab laws. However, they claim that they hadn’t had any interaction with law enforcement officers, so how could they be identified?
“Iran’s government has spent years building a digital surveillance apparatus,” Alimardani told WIRED. “The country’s national identity database, built in 2015, includes biometric data like face scans and is used for national ID cards and to identify people considered dissidents by authorities.”
A research analyst at Freedom House, Cathryn Grothe, says she also has received reports from people who suspect they’d been identified and targeted by authorities offline. She says she’s “seen a shift in Iran in recent years away from a reliance on informants and physical patrols toward forms of automated digital surveillance to target critics.”
Finally, it should be noted that the Iranian government already has access to facial recognition and uses it. According to WIRED, Iranian traffic officials started using it in 2020 to issue traffic fines. And no, it’s not for speeding and other traffic violations: it sends SMS warnings about wearing a hijab while inside a vehicle. One can only speculate, but the government may be already using facial recognition to identify women without a hijab anywhere else, too. No need to read dark, dystopian novels anymore – we’re living in one.