Privacy Concerns Raised Around Facial Recognition Technology

Facial Recognition Technology
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Facial recognition technology might be the next big technological innovation that will sweep through the world. Already, government agencies like Homeland Security are starting to think about ways they can use facial recognition technology to keep us all safer. In more mundane settings, such as Facebook, facial recognition software helps us tag our friends in photographs.

Privacy Advocates Balk at Facial Recognition Technology

Not everyone is enthused about all the improvements to facial recognition technology, however. After receiving negative feedback from consumers and Congress, for example, Google decided to scrap plans to include facial recognition abilities in its super high-tech Google Glasses. Meanwhile, Facebook thought storing the unique facial features of individuals in a database designed to help people find their friends was a great idea. The governments of Europe thought it was a terrible idea; now, the Facebook facial recognition feature is only available as an opt-in feature in Europe.

What's the big deal about facial recognition? Wouldn't Google Glasses that remind us of someone's name when we see them for the second time be a good thing? While it would certainly spare some very awkward moments, privacy advocates are pointing out other concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the critics of facial recognition software. It's vocally criticizing state governments, such as Ohio, who are implementing facial recognition technology without consulting with or even informing the general public. With a system like Ohio's, anyone with access to the facial recognition database could snap a photo of someone on the street and then bring up all the personal information the government has stored on that individual with a few clicks. The ACLU wants Ohio's system and systems like it to be shut down until potential abuses can be identified and regulated.

One of the abuses the ACLU and other privacy advocates are worried about is the so-called "fishing expedition." Imagine a police officer takes a camcorder to a crowded place, such as a mall, and records footage of the crowd at random. These images could later be analyzed to see if any "person of interest" is among them. It might not be a bad idea if police are looking for a kidnapping suspect at the mall, but what about the same technology being used to identify political protestors at a rally? What about warrants -- would police need one for such a "search"? Aren't all the people who are not specifically under investigation also being "searched" on such a fishing expedition? Furthermore, what if a law enforcement officer personally opposed to a political protest uses the facial recognition technology to learn more about the protestors and then decides to levy his or her own variety of justice? These types of troubling questions have not yet been resolved.

A Creepy Brave New World

Use of facial recognition by the government is one thing; facial recognition technology in the hands of businesses will present all types of other privacy issues. Right now, the most well-known commercial use of facial recognition technology is Facebook's aforementioned use of the technology to help its users find friends. Of course, that could also be used by cyberbullies, stalkers and pedophiles to find targets, but that's only one of the concerns around the commercial use of facial recognition technology.

In the 2002 juvenile fiction book Feed, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, everyone in the developed world has a chip inside their brains that gives them access to the Internet. Corporations sponsor the brain surgery that inserts the chip, with the caveat that they can then use the chip to pipe their advertisements directly into people's brains. Walking by a car dealership? The chip floods your mind with fantasies of you driving a brand new car, surrounded by beautiful men or women.

Facial recognition technology might bring us closer to that dystopic science-fiction future than we anticipated. Already, there's been some talk of digital billboards using the technology to detect the age and gender of the person looking at them, triggering the ad to change in order to fit the demographic. If you thought website cookies were getting annoying as they strive to shove customized ads at you, just wait until the kiosk at the shopping mall recognizes your face and remembers your last three purchases.

Unanswered Questions

Advocates of facial recognition technology might trot out the familiar argument that privacy is but a small price to pay for a safer, more convenient society. Wouldn't it be wonderful, they might argue, if criminals could be caught faster and terrorists could be stopped in their tracks thanks to facial recognition software? As for advertisements, wouldn't you rather see the ones that are most likely to appeal to you than all the others that don't? From domestic drones to digital billboards, however, there are still lots of questions about facial recognition that still need to be answered.

Politically so far, it's not an issue that has drawn partisan battle lines, with Democrats arguing one side of the debate and Republicans arguing the other. In fact, at least for now, it's an issue that has everyone concerned, liberal and conservative, blue and red. As the liberal Democratic senator Al Franken said when he addressed the Senate on the issue, it's not that facial recognition is all bad or all good. The problem is that an unregulated, unmonitored use of facial recognition technology has the potential to impinge on basic civil liberties. However, whether Americans will care enough to pay attention to the privacy concerns that facial recognition software presents or whether they will just happily, innocently continue to tag their friends on Facebook is yet another question that remains unresolved.

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