The other night on the CBS show 60 minutes, Leslie Stahl reported on the emerging use of facial recognition technologies, especially by businesses. Before going on, I’d highly recommend you see the segment: Face in the Crowd. It’s about 13 minutes in length.
Ironically, I was collecting information about what turns out to be a related topic: The upcoming Google Glass. More on this in a future post.
For those you didn’t view the segment, let me summarize: Facial recognition technologies have started mature to the point, where corporations are experimenting (and in some cases deploying) applications were they can employ the technology to target sell, in some cases secretly . More disturbingly, researchers have been able to use facial recognition to identify the face with a name, cross-correlating data from other sources to build a pretty complete profile of the person behind the face including in some cases, social security numbers. The other interesting fact that emerged is that the US government is way behind industry in the effective use of facial recognition due to the lack of a comprehensive database of faces. It turns out that Facebook and Google have much more comprehensive databases of faces that can be mined. The FBI is working to build a face database, but they are limited to criminal mug shots at this time, though I suspect that will change over time.
So, references to the TV series NCIS not withstanding, the folks to worry about at this time is industry. However, the US government is complicit as they haven’t shown an inclination to enact privacy rules on this emerging technology like the European Union has. Frankly, there is too much upside for businesses.
As with all privacy issues, there is a significant generational divide on this topic. Younger folks, including the coveted ages of 35 and younger, don’t seem to mind these invasions of privacy. In fact, many see it as cool. Older folks find it more than a little creepy. I suspect we are not far from the time when you’ll go into a trendy store, be greeted by name and told that your favorite pants are on sale. This is a good case scenario. What about the scenario were someone privately captures your face in a crowd and can figure out who you are, that you are not home and maybe you are in a place you shouldn’t be. The ramifications are unsettling at best.
What to do? Sadly, there really isn’t much that can be done for a couple reasons. First, this is but one small element of a much larger topic of privacy concerns. My concern is that it’s much more of a lynchpin than is its perceived to be. Consumers have been more than complicit in the eroding of our privacy rights in exchange for cool new capabilities on our Net enabled devices. I don’t see facial recognition as being any different. Finally, there is big money to be made in these technologies and large corporations are going to lobby hard to keep the status quo.
That said, there are some things you can and should still do. Limit the amount of personal information that you maintain on the Internet, especially in the form of Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, etc. I’m amazed how easy it is to build a pretty comprehensive profile on some people by what they post. Even if you’re careful, there is likely data about you that you don’t control that can be used to build that profile, like someone innocently “tagging” you in a photo or a set of meeting minutes from a volunteer activity that mentions you.
Work with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) at https://www.eff.org to help lobby the US Congress on privacy issues. Also, contact your representative and senators regarding privacy. I’ve mentioned the EFF in a previous post on protecting Internet freedoms.
Finally, if you find companies misusing your personal information, demand that they remove your data from their databases and refuse to do any more business with them.