Who should own and control data about your face? Should companies be able to collect and use your facial data at will?
Is it enough to let users can opt out of facial recognition, or should companies be required to collect your specific opt in before collecting your facial data? If a company has multiple services, is one opt in enough, or should they be required to seek your permission for every new type of use? Under what conditions should a company be able to sell and monetize their ability to recognize you?[i]
There are a lot of cool uses for facial recognition tools, but how informed are you about the risks? How do you weigh the pros and cons to make an informed choice about who can identify you?
Governments are paying greater attention to potential privacy threats
A preliminary report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) identifying the latest facial recognition technologies and how these are currently being used by companies has just been released. The report also outlines the FTC’s plan for creating best-practice guidelines for the industry that should come out later this year.
In Europe concerns over facial recognition technologies potential to breach personal privacy has resulted in a similar review.
This is great news for consumers as it signals a shift in the timing of privacy reviews from a reactive approach where guidelines have come after consumers have largely already had their privacy trampled, to a far more proactive approach to protecting consumers online privacy, safety, and security.
In response, companies like Facebook and Google are dramatically increasing their lobbying budgets and campaign funding
It is no coincidence that as government bodies increase their focus on consumer’s online privacy that the companies making the biggest bucks from selling information about you – and access to you – are pouring money and human resources into influencing the government’s decisions.
According to disclosure forms obtained by The Hill, “Facebook increased its lobbying spending during the second quarter of 2012, allocating $960,000, or three times as much as during the same three-month period in 2011”.
And a report in the New York Times noted that “With Congress and privacy watchdogs breathing down its neck, Google is stepping up its lobbying presence inside the Beltway — spending more than Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft combined in the first three months of the year.” Google spent $5.03 million on lobbying from January through March of this year, a record for the Internet giant, and a 240 percent increase from the $1.48 million it spent on lobbyists in the same quarter a year ago, according to disclosures filed Friday with the clerk of the House.
In addition to lobbying spend, these companies, their political action committees (PAC’s) – and the billionaire individuals behind the companies have exorbitant amounts of money for political contributions; chits to be called in when privacy decisions that could impact their bottom line hang in the balance.
Here’s what today’s facial recognition technologies can – and are – doing:
It only takes a quick look for you to identify someone you know; yet facial recognition technologies are both faster and more accurate than people will ever be – and they have the capability of identifying billions of individuals.
Although many companies are still using basic, and largely non-invasive, facial recognition tools to simply recognize if there is a face in a photo, an increasing number of companies are leveraging advanced facial recognition tools that can have far reaching ramifications for your privacy, safety, and even employability.
Advanced facial recognition solutions include Google+’s Tag My Face, Facebook’s Photo Tag Suggest, Android apps like FaceLock, and Visidon AppLock, and Apple Apps like Klik, FaceLook, and Age Meter, then there are apps like SceneTap, FACER Celebrity, FindYourFaceMate.com and DoggelGanger.com. New services leveraging these features will become increasingly common – particularly if strict privacy regulations aren’t implemented.
Some companies use facial recognition services in their photo and video applications to help users recognize people in photos, or even automatically tag them for you. (You may not want to be tagged in a particular, photo, but if you allow photo tagging you can only try to minimize the damage, you can’t proactively prevent it).
Some services use facial recognition for security purposes; your face essentially becomes your unique password (but what do you do if it gets hacked? Change your face??).
What are the potential risks of facial recognition tools to individuals?
Take the massive amount of information that Google, Facebook, ad networks, data miners, and people search websites are collecting on all of us; add the info that we voluntarily provide to dating sites, social networks, and blogs; combine that with facial recognition software; and you have a world with reduced security, privacy, anonymity, and freedom. Carnegie Mellon researchers predict that this is “a world where every stranger in the street could predict quite accurately sensitive information about you (such as your SSN, but also your credit score, or sexual orientation” just by taking a picture.
Risk 1: Identity theft and security
Think of your personal information—name, photos, birthdate, address, usernames, email addresses, family members, and more—as pieces of a puzzle. The more pieces a cybercriminal has, the closer he is to solving the puzzle. Maybe the puzzle is your credit card number. Maybe it’s the password you use everywhere. Maybe you’re your social security number.
Identity thieves often use social security numbers to commit fraud. Photo: listverse.com.
Facial recognition software is a tool that can put all these pieces together. When you combine facial recognition software with the wealth of public data about us online, you have what’s called “augmented reality:” “the merging of online and offline data that new technologies make possible.” You also have a devastating blow to personal privacy and an increased risk of identity theft.
Once a cybercriminal figures out your private information, your money and your peace of mind are in danger. Common identity theft techniques include opening new credit cards in your name and racking up charges, opening bank accounts under your name and writing bad checks, using your good credit history to take out a loan, and draining your bank account. More personal attacks may include hijacking your social networks while pretending to be you, reading your private messages, and posting unwanted or embarrassing things “as” you.
The research: how facial recognition can lead to identity theft
Carnegie Mellon researches performed a 2011 facial recognition study using off-the-shelf face recognition software called PittPatt, which was purchased by Google. By cross-referencing two sets of photos—one taken of participating students walking around campus, and another taken from pseudonymous users of online dating sites—with public Facebook data (things you can see on a search engine without even logging into Facebook), they were able to identify a significant number of people in the photos. Based on the information they learned through facial recognition, the researchers were then able to predict the social security numbers of some of the participants.
They concluded this merging of our online and offline identities can be a gateway to identity theft:
If an individual’s face in the street can be identified using a face recognizer and identified images from social network sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn, then it becomes possible not just to identify that individual, but also to infer additional, and more sensitive, information about her, once her name has been (probabilistically) inferred.
Some statistics on identity theft from the Identity Theft Assistance Center (ITAC):
- 8.1 million adults in the U.S. suffered identity theft in 2011
- Each victim of identity theft loses an average of $4,607
- Out-of-pocket losses (the amount you actually pay, as opposed to your credit card company) average $631 per victim
- New account fraud, where thieves open new credit card accounts on behalf of their victims, accounted for $17 billion in fraud
- Existing account fraud accounted for $14 billion.
Risk 2: Chilling effects on freedom of speech and action
Facial recognition software threatens to censor what we say and limit what we do, even offline. Imagine that you’re known in your community for being an animal rights activist, but you secretly love a good hamburger. You’re sneaking in a double cheeseburger at a local restaurant when, without your knowledge, someone snaps a picture of you. It’s perfectly legal for someone to photograph you in a public place, and aside from special rights of publicity for big-time celebrities; you don’t have any rights to control this photo. This person may not have any ill intentions; he may not even know who you are. If he uploads it to Facebook, and Facebook automatically tags you in it, you’re in trouble.
Anywhere there’s a camera, there’s the potential that facial recognition is right behind it.
The same goes for the staunch industrialist caught at the grassroots protest; the pro-life female politician caught leaving an abortion clinic; the CEO who has too much to drink at the bar; the straight-laced lawyer who likes to dance at goth clubs. If anyone with a cell phone can take a picture, and any picture can be tied back to us even when the photographer doesn’t know who we are, we may stop going to these places altogether. We may avoid doing anything that could be perceived as controversial. And that would be a pity, because we shouldn’t have to.
Risk 3: Physical safety and due process
Perhaps most importantly, facial recognition threatens our safety. It’s yet another tool in stalkers’ and abusers’ arsenals. See that pretty girl at the bar? Take her picture; find out everything about her; pay her a visit at home. It’s dangerous in its simplicity.
There’s a separate set of risks from facial recognition that doesn’t do a good job of identifying targets: false identifications. An inaccurate system runs the risk of identifying, and thus detaining or arresting, the wrong people. Let’s say that an airport scans incoming travelers’ faces to search for known terrorists. Their systems incorrectly recognize you as a terrorist, and you’re detained, searched, interrogated, and held for hours, maybe even arrested. This is precisely why Boston’s Logan Airport abandoned its facial recognition trials in 2002: its systems could only identify volunteers 61.4 percent of the time.
Learn more about facial recognition technologies, how they work and what the risks are in these resources:
- How Facial Recognition Systems Work through this article on HowStuffWorks
- Digits: How Facial Recognition Poses Privacy Risks, video by Wall Street Journal Live
- Face-ID Tools Pose New Risk, by the Wall Street Journal
- EPIC Calls for Moratorium on Facial Recognition Technology by the Electronic Privacy Information Center
Three steps to protecting your facial data:
- There are many positive uses for facial recognition technologies, but the lack of consumer protections make them unnecessarily risky. Until the control and management of this data is firmly in the hands of consumers, proactively opt out of such features and avoid services where opt out is not an option.
- Voice your concerns to elected officials to offset the impact of corporate lobbying and campaign contributions intended to soften proposed consumer protections.
- Voice your frustration to the companies that are leveraging this technology without providing you full control over your facial data – including the ability to have it removed, block it from being sold, traded, shared, etc., explicitly identify when and how this data can be used either for standalone purposes or combined with other data about you, and so on. If a company does not respect your wishes, stop using them. If you allow yourself to be exploited, plenty of companies will be happy to do so.
[i] See The One-Way-Mirror Society – Privacy Implications of Surveillance Monitoring Networks to understand some implications of facial recognition tool’s use when companies sell this information.