Ethical and Legal Issues: Facial Recognition Technology
As technological capabilities expand, more ethical and legal concerns arise. The privacy practices of many companies are coming under scrutiny as the public is concerned about company and government efforts to install electronic surveillance programs. The Digital Revolution is marked by increasing amounts of user-generated content and internet users are frightened about what companies are doing with their information.
Facial recognition allows the identification, tracking, and documentation of anybody – “constantly and continuously” (The Guardian). The software is often associated with purposes such as identifying subjects for law enforcement, but the technology’s implications are further reaching than that. Facial recognition isn’t only applied to people who have been arrested or are subject to surveillance… Everyone is a potential target.
In 2009, facial recognition software was used in a data mining algorithm to demonstrate that researchers could use public photos to guess individuals’ sensitive personal information such as social security numbers (Singularity Hub).
NPR interviewed an expert in computer vision on the subject of facial recognition technology. Neeraj Kumar says facial recognition can only successfully identify individuals in photos using one-to-one comparison. The technology is not so advanced that it can compare one photo against many possible matches.
Facebook is currently used by over 1 billion people throughout the world. The site has the largest biometric database in the world (NPR). Members voluntarily submit photos and identify the people who are in them. According to Facebook, “Every day, people add more than 100 million tags to photos on Facebook” (Facebook).
Facebook acquired the Israeli startup app Face.com in 2012 (Singularity Hub). Since then, the social networking site has integrated the facial recognition software to create a facial recognition database. Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan told NBC News that the purpose of the new feature introduced in 2011 called “Tag Suggest” is for the user’s benefit. Users now have the opportunity to identify photos they appear in. She says Facebook doesn’t currently use facial recognition technology for any other features, but admits this could change.
Every time a face is labeled in a Facebook photo, the limitations of facial recognition become fewer. Each of these labeled photos contributes to Facebook’s “super-database” (NPR). Currently, only photos tagged to a user can go into the database, but soon Facebook will claim the right to your profile pictures. The only real way for users to avoid this is to use profile pictures that don’t include their faces (Singularity Hub). For now, Facebook users who don’t wish to be a part of the database can opt out of the Tag Suggest feature.
Facebook swears it has never given the government direct access to the information it collects on users, but only provides information for specific requests as required by law (NBC News).
Other uses of facial recognition technology to watch out for:
Tesco, a major British retail chain, is the third largest retailer in the world with locations all over Europe, Asia and the United States. It has recently begun using facial recognition technologies to customize ads displayed on advertising screens to individual shoppers. Although Tesco claims that the use of the technology won’t be at all invasive, it essentially scans customers as they walk through the store without ever asking for permission (Huffington Post). This is a huge consent issue, and personally, I believe it to be extremely unethical.
Google+ by Google also uses facial recognition software, but it requires user consent (NBC News). The company currently bans the use of the technology on apps designed for Google Glass, but this may change in the future (Singularity Hub).
Disneyland also uses facial recognition technology to identify park attendees in photos. These photos are offered for sale – often with customer credit card information already linked to it. Customers complain that they never actually submitted any of this information at the theme park and feel as though Disney violated their privacy (The Guardian).
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly recently unveiled a Domain Awareness System. This new infrastructure for surveillance, developed by Microsoft, links police databases with live video feeds that are capable of identifying vehicle license plates. The Guardian is unsure whether the system already uses, or plans to use facial recognition software.
A Finnish startup, Uniqul, uses facial recognition to identify customers and act as a credit card (Huffington Post).
The US government has contracts with Identix, a face-recognition contractor. The Guardian notes that many people have concerns about cameras being installed on lampposts in public venues such as Union Square and Washington Square Park. Combined with facial recognition software, these cameras will allow police to watch video tagged to individuals in real time. Imagine the implications for civilian-run protests like Occupy…
Japan’s National Institute of Informatics have fought back against unwanted technology by developing glasses that can block facial recognition (Huffington Post).
UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have both introduced bills to protect their populations from intensive surveillance (The Guardian). In addition, European authorities have forbidden Facebook’s use of facial recognition software on European users (Singularity Hub).
There is no law that prevents the U.S. government from using or building facial recognition databases at this time. In fact, Disney recently shared data from its facial recognition technology with the military (The Guardian).