You go to a fast food joint and place your order on a computer screen. You don't need cash or a credit card to pay. All you have to do is smile at the camera built into the computer.

The camera will analyze your face and once your identity has been confirmed, your payment process is complete.

Such an experiment is being conducted in China, according to a local report. This process has been made possible by what is known as facial recognition technology. Simply put, a machine does what you do to recognize your friends from their many distinctive facial features, such as the distance between the eyes and the length of the nose.

The recent abundance of media reports on the commercial application of this technology must be proof that its accuracy has improved exponentially.

At Tokyo's Haneda Airport, an immigration procedure debuted last week that uses a camera to confirm the passenger's identity.

But in today's society, we are already being watched by security cameras everywhere. If high-efficiency facial recognition technology is thrown into the mix, shouldn't we worry about increased invasions of privacy?

"In Japan, the problem is the absence of any system to regulate the technology," said Hiroshi Miyashita, an associate professor at Chuo University.

In Canada, he explained, a new technology is coming into broader use to keep the facial images on cameras blurred and remove the blur only when needed. And in Britain, citizens can demand authorities to disclose information on whether they have been caught on camera.

In traditional Japanese costume dramas, hand-drawn "ninso-gaki" ("Wanted" posters) are a vital tool for hunting down criminals. Distributed widely, the posters block the perps' escape routes.

Come to think of it, the use of facial recognition technology may be likened to creating a digital version of "ninso-gaki" posters of ordinary citizens. While there are probably merits that could be used to our advantage, it is also vital that measures be worked out to prevent abuse.

The last thing we need is a future society where technology reigns supreme and individual humans are cast into the shadows.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 25

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.