Facing Concerns about Facial Recognition
Sixto Ortiz Jr.
NOV 27, 2012 12:15 PM
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Facial recognition is becoming increasingly popular.

Applications such as Facebook and Google+ are using the technology to augment their social-interaction offerings by, for example, automatically adding names of people to photos posted on the sites.

The Departments of Motor Vehicles in 32 of the 50 US states are also utilizing facial recognition in conjunction with driver's license photos. This lets the DMVs determine if someone has illegally acquired licenses under more than one name.

Law-enforcement and national-security agencies such as the US FBI are using the technology to, for example, compare a still picture taken at a crime scene against a database of known felons.

However, the growing use of the approach is causing concern for privacy advocates, who contend that companies and individuals could use facial recognition for activities such as unwanted marketing and identity theft.

In addition, false positives by facial-recognition systems could create problems such as public-safety officials detaining an innocent person at an airport.

And many people may not even know they are in a face-recognition database and are at risk, said Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital-rights advocacy organization.

How and Where

Facial-recognition technology dates back to the mid-1960s, when Woodrow Bledsoe, Helen Chan, and Charles Bisson of Panoramic Research used expertise in pattern recognition and automated reasoning to enable computers to recognize faces.

Today, there are numerous facial-recognition techniques.

For example, an algorithm could analyze and categorize facial features, particularly the relative positions of landmarks such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. Systems could then store this information in a database for future use.

Facebook utilizes facial-recognition software to scan about 300 million photos uploaded by users. According to Fred Wolens, a spokesperson with Facebook's Policy Communications Team, the company's Tag Suggestions facial-recognition feature makes the naming of people in photos easier. Once the system links a facial image and a name, it can automatically tag other images of the person.

The FBI is in the process of rolling out its $1 billion Next Generation Identification system, a database of various biometric samples — including facial-recognition images — designed to enhance its ability to identify and catch criminals.

However, privacy advocates are concerned that, for example, law-enforcement agencies might use photographic images captured from a variety of sources, including closed-circuit TV feeds, to arrest and investigate innocent people who look like suspects.

A Source of Concern

Privacy advocates say people can't change their faces and thus can't protect themselves from the problems facial-recognition technology could cause.

Some privacy advocates complain that companies don't clearly inform their users that they deploy facial recognition.

A major concern is whether people will be able to opt in or out of processes in which facial images are captured, explained Dennis Dayman, chief privacy officer with Internet marketing firm Eloqua.

The most worrisome part, he added, is the capturing of facial images in public areas without people's knowledge or permission.

"We are not yet into facial-recognition tagging for such processes, but if and when that is applied, many issues are certainly bound to arise," he said.

"The ability to capture photos of a person and identify that person at a distance and without his knowledge creates privacy concerns because a person is less able to control who will have access to his personal information," added the EFF's Lynch.

When facial-recognition data is linked to identifying information such as names and addresses — as in the Google Picasa photo-organizing, editing, and sharing website — people can't control where that material is shared and how it is used, she explained.

In some cases, a system within which a person's face is linked to personal information could automatically tag other photos of the same individual. Or individuals could link images of their own face with such data. Either way, a hacker could access linked personal information.

Hackers could use the material themselves or sell it to companies that aggregate personal data for sale to Internet marketing companies and other organizations.

On the Other Hand

Facial-recognition advocates say that facial-recognition technology has many beneficial uses and that concerns about it are overblown.

For example, stated Brian Zimmer, president of the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License, a nonprofit educational organization, facial recognition used in conjunction with licenses could identify people trying to obtain or who have already obtained official identification under multiple names.

The use of facial recognition by public agencies should be safe, he added, because they must comply with federal and state privacy laws.

Facebook's Wolens explained that the company's facial-recognition system doesn't violate anyone's privacy because Tag Suggestions is used only in the context of an existing friendship in which both parties agree to communicate and see each others' photos. Users who aren't Facebook friends with someone cannot utilize Tag Suggestions with that person, the company says.

Moreover, Wolens noted, the data is encrypted, so if someone managed to obtain it, they couldn't read it without the decryption key.

Facing the Future

Facial-recognition technology will continue to evolve and become more accurate as it overcomes hurdles such as problems identifying one face that is surrounded by many others, said Ray Cavanaugh, vice president of sales for security firm CGI Protects.

Such technical advances could increase concern about the technology, stated the EFF's Lynch.

According to Lynch, with many areas already blanketed by security cameras, governments could someday track a person's life via facial recognition, which would threaten and inhibit personal freedom.

Based on such concerns, the US Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law held hearings this summer titled "What Facial Recognition Technology Means for Privacy and Civil Liberties."

Privacy advocates say facial-recognition technology is endangering personal privacy and the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment. The amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, which, Lynch said, implies a protection for individual privacy.

On 22 October, the US Federal Trade Commission released a report titled "Facing Facts: Best Practices for Common Uses of Facial Recognition Technologies."

The report recommends that companies using facial-recognition technology:

  • design their services with consumer privacy in mind,
  • develop reasonable security for the information they collect and sound methods for determining when to keep or dispose of the information, and
  • consider the sensitivity of information when developing products and services.

This document could lay the groundwork for future regulations.

Some privacy advocates worry that technology advances and decreasing implementation costs will make facial recognition a casual pursuit that even technically unsophisticated people could undertake, thereby exacerbating potential threats.

Eloqua's Dayman said that in a world of technology growth, we as a culture need to adapt to changes like this and think differently than before. "In 20 years," he added, "We might look back at this and ask 'Why was there such a fuss?' "

Referring to facial-recognition technology, CGI Protects' Cavanaugh stated, "There is concern over privacy, but I believe the technology will be used for the things it is most suited for, which is identifying potential threats in this increasingly dangerous world."

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