Like all biometrics solutions, face recognition technology measures and matches the unique characteristics for the purposes of identification or authentication. Often leveraging a digital or connected camera, facial recognition software can detect faces in images, quantify their features. And then it can match them against stored templates in a database.
Facial recognition technology – especially as the technology becomes more sophisticated – may be one of the gravest privacy threats of our time. It has the potential to remove the anonymity we expect in crowds and most public places. There are the obvious “chilling effects” it could have on political demonstrations and speech. Concerns being monitored by civil liberties advocates like the ACLU, EPIC, and EFF. However, this technology will also very likely be used in greater capacity in the commercial sector to further target consumers for advertising and discriminatory pricing purposes.
Facial recognition has been an important part of science fiction for the past 50 years. In most of those works it is painted as a means of oppression, part of a surveillance state and a form of control.
A combination of circumstances — the low cost of computing, improvements in machine learning, proliferation of internet connected devices — has once again turned science fiction into reality. With facial recognition starting to be used in the mainstream for security and safety purposes, will it eventually turn into the dystopian future many imagined?
How facial recognition works
You might be good at recognizing faces. You probably find it a cinch to identify the face of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. You’re familiar with their facial features, their eyes, nose, mouth, and how they come together.
That’s how a facial recognition system works, but on a grand, algorithmic scale. Where you see a face, recognition technology sees data. That data can be stored and accessed. For instance, half of all American adults have their images stored in one or more facial-recognition databases that law enforcement agencies can search, according to a Georgetown University study.
So how does facial recognition work? Technologies vary, but here are the basic steps:
A picture of your face is captured from a photo or video. Your face might appear alone or in a crowd. Your image may show you looking straight ahead or nearly in profile.
Facial recognition software reads the geometry of your face. Key factors include the distance between your eyes and the distance from forehead to chin. The software identifies facial landmarks — one system identifies 68 of them — that are key to distinguishing your face. The result: your facial signature.
Your facial signature — a mathematical formula — is compared to a database of known faces. And consider this: at least 117 million Americans have images of their faces in one or more police databases. According to a May 2018 report, the FBI has had access to 412 million facial images for searches.
A determination is made. Your faceprint may match that of an image in a facial recognition system database.
In general, that’s how facial recognition works.
How Does It Invade Your Privacy?
Thankfully many countries have laws in place which prevent large scale abuse of personal information. However, the technology sector is fast moving and often outpaces legislation, as regulators scramble to keep up with innovation. Most privacy concerns revolve around two major themes: Corporate data gathering and government surveillance.
The Growing Surveillance State
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the Government can and will use technology to spy on those in other countries and even their own citizens too. Mass surveillance using facial recognition is a looming reality because the technology has become more affordable and effective. However, one of the first notable uses was back in 2001 at Super Bowl XXXV resulting in 19 people provisionally identified as holding criminal records.
More recently the US government published plans to reconfigure airport security using facial recognition. By combining passport photos along with visa applications, they hope to identify foreign travelers leaving the US as well as any criminals or terrorists. Any photos taken of US citizens at the airport are currently set to be discarded after confirmation. However, the Customs and Border Protection have not ruled out changing this in the future.
In March 2017, a House oversight committee hearing was told that over half of all adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases which can be accessed by the FBI. 80% of those photographs came from non-criminal sources like passports and driver’s licences. Even more worrying was that the algorithms used to identify people are wrong 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people.
Over in the UK, facial recognition was used at the music festival Download and at the Champion’s League soccer final in Cardiff. Its use at Download was controversial as the public was not made aware of it. During the event up to 90,000 faces were scanned and compared to a European database. But a Police spokesperson confirmed that the images were not stored. Not long after the soccer final, the first arrest in the UK using facial recognition was made as part of a larger trial of the technology.
Photography and Photo Tagging
Facebook was the first website to popularize the idea of tagging someone in a photograph. The benefit was clear. Upload a photo and everyone in it can effectively add it to their digital scrapbook. The first iteration of Facebook’s photo tagging was quite a manual process and turned a useful feature into a chore. Their solution was to create a more passive way to let you tag your friends in last night’s photos.
This is where facial recognition found its place in Facebook’s arsenal of tools. By adding your face to their database, when a friend uploads a photo, Facebook can suggest tagging you with minimal effort. The feature was decried as a cynical means for Facebook to gather more data on their users. Especially since you were auto-enrolled in the feature. The European Union even decided that Facebook’s facial recognition was an invasion of users’ privacy and blocked its expansion inside the EU.
Facebook is not the only company to experiment with facial recognition for photo organization and tagging. Most major photography software, including offerings from Apple and Google, also use facial recognition to group photos. The main difference between Facebook and the others is that Facebook determines the identity of the person in the photograph.
Apple and Google Photos use it to group similar faces together and then allow you to assign a name to the collection. Although that difference doesn’t mean that they particularly value your privacy either.
The Corporate Invasion
Businesses and advertisers have an incentive to capture as much data as possible about potential customers. The increasing availability of facial recognition software has made it affordable for them to start using it as one Reddit user found out. Peppes Pizza restaurant in Norway was performing facial recognition using a hidden camera to deliver gendered advertising.
The perceptive Reddit user was able to get a photo of the live log data as it scanned people’s faces. Not long after the Reddit revelation, the camera was removed.
Fast food restaurants particularly seem to want to out do either other with their novel uses of technology. A branch of KFC in Beijing teamed up with the Chinese search engine Baidu to use facial recognition to predict your order. The current setup uses facial expressions and age approximations to guess your order. KFC have said that they want to provide a “personalized ordering experience” which would no doubt require storing your image.
While social networks have changed the way we communicate, it’s worth thinking through the information you give them. Russia’s social network Vkontakte was criticized for their method of storing profile images after an app called FindFace emerged. The app could scan all 200 million VK profile images to identify someone just by their face. The app was initially seen as a fun novelty. However, things took a dark turn after it was used to identify and harass pornography actresses and possible prostitutes.
What Can You Do Now?
New technologies present governments, businesses, and advertisers the chance to further erode your privacy. They also represent technological advancement which, given the right circumstances, could benefit us all. Unlike social networks there is very little control you can exert over the collection of your image. Governments and law enforcement agencies are likely protected under law to collect the data. Security at large events is usually going to be covered under the terms of entry to the event.
We all face the same challenge as the regulators. The fast pace of change makes keeping up with the latest technological challenge to our privacy almost impossible. Instead of trying to stay on top of each change, focus on understanding why you value privacy. Having a go-to response for the “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument could make others value their privacy too.
Here are three things you can do to fight for your privacy:
1. Educate yourself.
The most important thing you can do is learn more about the technology and its privacy implications. So that you are an educated and informed consumer. To stay abreast of facial recognition and other emerging privacy issues.
2. Support legislation that defends privacy
Write to your elected representatives to ask for stronger privacy protections against facial recognition technology and other emergent technologies that you believe may be used to invade your privacy. Many privacy laws are created on the state level. So stay informed and vote for better privacy protection.
3. Avoid companies with poor privacy practices
When possible, don’t do business with companies that you believe collect unnecessary personal information or fail to protect that information. Take your money elsewhere and let the companies know why.
It’s hard to argue with the aim of protecting people, especially in time in which we live. However, it is important to challenge unnecessary or overreaching tactics that undermine your right to privacy. The balance between safety and privacy is tough. But that doesn’t mean that as a society we shouldn’t try.