Yes, we should be afraid of facial-recognition software


Hey, now I can identify Sen. Al Franken!

My gut instinct is to call Senator Al Franken a well-meaning fool when it comes to his latest outcry — this time against the advent of facial-recognition software — but he actually has a point.

For the record, I have nothing against Sen. Franken (D-MN). In fact, I rather respect him. But any time I see a politician all up in arms about the problems some new-fangled technology is going to cause his simpleton, Luddite constituents, I get defensive.

By and large, I think Congress should leave new web technologies alone so they can grow organically and we, the people — who are actually perfectly able to adjust to them — can decide the limits with which we’re comfortable. If someone gets out of line, agencies such as the FTC are more than capable of bringing down the regulatory hammer on an individual basis. But facial recognition is a whole new beast.

I’m not even so concerned about government or law enforcement agencies using facial recognition to identify suspects under murky constitutional protection (although it is a legitimate concern). Rather I’m more troubled about the thought of any average Joe having this power at his own fingertips. If you’ve heard about Alessandro Acquisti’s work with the technology, you know why this possibility should be a little scary. Snap a photo of someone with a smartphone, analyze an image against a database of social media or Flickr pics and, voila, you have a name.

From there, it’s easy to get someone’s age, hometown, interests, news coverage, you name it. Given a name, an age and a city of birth, Acquisti has proven it’s relatively easy to predict someone’s Social Security number. It also wouldn’t be too difficult to start stalking a complete stranger, or to make a national laughing stock out of some innocent (but hilarious) face in the crowd. Or for a stranger to¬†dredge up those pornographic shots of you that your ex-boyfriend posted online. Or to figure out the guy next to you on the subway is rich, follow him home and rob him.

Facial recognition is one of the reasons I believe we need an updated system of civil laws to account for the unwilling — and possibly global — publicity that the advent of social media makes possible. You don’t even need to have a Facebook or Twitter account to get thrown into the mix. All it takes is someone else snapping a casual photo, tagging you and you’re in, like it or not.

This is also why I don’t think Google went far enough with the face-blurring technology it announced for YouTube videos on Wednesday. Blocking out dissidents’ faces so they aren’t the targets of authoritarian governments is a noble goal, but it doesn’t address the issue of me being able to blur out my face in someone else’s video. I’m not sure how such a capability would work from a business perspective, but citizens need some level of control over how and where their images are used.

It’ll be slow-going, but I assume Congress or the Supreme Court will ultimately define the governmental uses of facial-recognition software just as they’ve done with wiretaps and GPS tracking, and as they should do very soon with other types of personal data stored with online services. But it’s the technology in the hands of everyday citizens that bothers me most. I don’t think I want a law saying “thou shalt not develop apps that utilize facial-recognition software,” but I also don’t want some complete stranger asking me how I liked my latest trip to San Diego.

You can watch video of Franken’s opening statement from Wednesday’s hearing here.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user striatic.

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