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Yes, we should be afraid of facial-recognition software

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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(s yhoo) 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 (s fb) 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 (s goog) 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.

19 Responses to “Yes, we should be afraid of facial-recognition software”

  1. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew when I picked my nose. The internet made the world a small place again. It’s not like we had any privacy anyway with credit cards, loyalty membership cards, or license plates.

    The whole invasion of privacy thing is overblown. Anybody that wants to can tell when I’m going to the bathroom because. I have a revolution sensor on my toilet paper roll wired up to a web server. You can tell whenever I take a crap and how messy it was by the calculated number of sheets. The algorithm even accounts for the roll getting smaller. Does anybody really care?

  2. Most people, at some point, have been photographed and labelled publicly. There are certainly captioned images of me available on my employer’s public website, in local newspapers and so on. So assuming the software can match old photos against newer ones, then just given my face, you can work out roughly how old I am, where I was educated, what I do for a living, and some of the hobbies that I have had.

    All this stuff was always available, if somebody cared enough to pay a private investigator to find out about me – the difference is that the new technology can make this easy and automatic. One can easily imagine a Google Glass type interface that would hang a box next to everyone you see containing basic biographical information culled from online sources (and in many cases, also home address, names of children and beverage of choice.)

    This kind of anonymity, where people you meet in the street don’t know who you are, is only available in cities. It’s an entirely modern phenomenon. Even today, if you walk around a small town or village, you’ll discover that people, by-and-large, know who everyone is (and who your grandfather was, and why your Auntie Jean doesn’t speak to the rest of the family…)

    So living in an environment where everyone knows everyone else’s business is not so terribly unusual – and one thing that we do know is that that kind of environment has tended to breed intolerance.

  3. twospruces

    Perhaps we’d all be better off if the mental energy going into this collective so called “technology” was redirected towards changing the macro-elements of how we actually live…meaning air/water/food/housing/transportation/energy. For all our glorious communication infrastructure, we still burn IE combust a lot of stuff don’t we. And, thank goodness for games…we’ll distract an entire generation from the real issues. You can’t eat food grown in from farmville. Guess I’m a luddite.

    I have an idea. Let’s create “world wide shut off the processors” day, and just go for walks in the forest.

  4. Let’s see, you don’t want the average joe to have the ability to do facial recognition, but aren’t concerned about the government or business having that right? Seems like facial recognition is also a legitimate investigational/informational tool for a free society. Run facial recognition on that copy that’s beating up a guy for a random traffic offense and send the video and his ID to the FBI and ACLU.

    I see no reason to reserve this capability to entities that already have extreme power compared to the average citizen. If a criminal misuses facial recognition to enable a crime, pass a law that tacks on additional jail time for the misuse of the tool (similar to extra time sentenced for using a fire-arm in a crime). No reason to outlaw the capability for the citizenry at large.

    • Derrick Harris

      My actual stance on law enforcement, etc., is that regulations will emerge to dictate how they can use the tech. I think it’s harder to regulate consumer products.

      Re: your point about crime, it makes some sense (although would some serious user data to determine that someone used a tech to commit a crime), but it doesn’t address the societal right-to-be-left-alone problem.

  5. Paula Lynn

    This is not about freedom; this is about the ability to have total control over people. While everyone can be a vigilante, the top power will be able to monitor and force you to go and do what they say or else. Rampant hacking only offers more fear. Your kids will not be coming home. Next time bow. Job interview ? HA! Boy are you ugly in the morning. Not in our office. Only gets worse from here.

  6. The genie is not going back into the bottle. Linked information is too useful for it not to be passively collected, and 10-20 years from now it will be trivial not only to figure out our names from our photos, but to discover where we walked, what we bought and what we ate from just our photos as well.

    No less importantly, having such power universally available is, in my opinion, a much better way to go than having it restricted in the hands of the government. Abuses are the result of power asymmetry, not the result of insufficiently untrustworthy people. Everything that can be abused will be abused, and restricting great power to the hands of a few would infinitely increase scope for abuse.

    Indeed, this way of looking at things may suggest a solution for the potential abuse – the focus should be not on privacy, but on symmetry. In other words, since information access via the Internet is an easily identifiable and traceable action, you should not be able to look at me without me knowing that you looked at me. Or, for a more concrete example, I should know about everyone who looked at my Facebook profile, what they looked at, and when. In an informationally dense society, the question has always been “who watches the watchers”. We can now create a system where everyone is a watcher, capable of watching everyone else, including seeing who it is who decided to watch them. In such a system, excessive nosiness will almost certainly be socially discouraged (the same way staring at strangers presently is), stalkers would stick out like sore thumbs to the individual, the community, and law enforcement, and the scope for government abuse would decrease drastically.

    • Derrick Harris

      That’s a good point. I think “who watches the watchers” will be easier implement for the government than for private citizens, though. We shall see.

    • jeffslutz

      Yes indeed. And it’s only a hop from here to not needing a face at all to identify someone just by body shape and the way they move.

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  8. mcbeese

    I welcome these new technologies. If you’ve been an idiot online and you’re worried about the repercussions, whose fault is that? Sorry people, the rest of us don’t want to hold up technology to solve your bad choices. By the way, it’s going to get worse… photo parsing technology is going to continue to advance and will be applied to existing online photos, not just new photos. In other words, if you’ve been misbehaving online, it’s too late to change your ways… you’re screwed.

    • Ok – but what about the implications of:
      “…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…”
      “…those pornographic shots of you that your ex-boyfriend posted online…”

  9. William Beem

    Who promised you a right to privacy online? The genie is out of the bottle and Sen. Franken wants to stuff it back inside. Sorry, that’s never worked and is unlikely to change in the future. If you want absolute privacy, become a shut-in.

    • Derrick Harris

      Sadly, I agree that it’s unlikely to change. But I take issue with the notion that facial recognition is limited to the online world. That’s what makes it so much different than other, relatively trivial, concerns such as targeted ads.

    • Who promised our founding fathers a right to free speech? Who promised slaves the right to be free? The point is not what someone promised you, but what sort of world you want to live in.