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I see you: The ominous rise of facial recognition software

If you thought Big Brother was watching before you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Anyone on a social networking site will already have had to come to terms with the fact that their personal and professional profiles are public to some extent, even with all the security measures they may have taken.  The introduction of facial recognition software is set to expose us even further, in some cases, whether we like it or not.

How it works

The software automatically identifies a person from a digital image by comparing the selected features to a facial database.  Facebook, Windows Live and numerous governmental and federal organisations around the globe are already using or trialling the software,  to much public scrutiny.

I spy…

Concerns around compromised privacy and the overuse of surveillance technologies have been raised and rightly so.  Facebook has come under fire from the U.S Senate for making the technology an ‘opt out’ feature, defaulting user profiles to automatically use the software rather than ‘opt in’ if they choose to.  In the absence of legislation, the Senate met with Facebook and other companies earlier this month to discuss the software.  Rob Sherman, a privacy manager with Facebook defended their usage at the hearing – “The technology is used only to suggest photo tags among people who are already friends on the site, so it does not invade peoples’ privacy.”  This may be true at the moment but potential sharing of information could lead to information aggregation.

Chris Sumner, cofounder of The Online Privacy Foundation warns, “Right now, these are all separate companies, but if you start bringing them together you have a powerful inventory of people’s faces.”  This would mean that a person’s likeness could be used to find out all the information associated with them – networking profiles, blog posts, travel patterns, internet behavior and even up-to-the-minute locations if you ever disclose this on-line.  One of the biggest worries is the governments’s access to political affiliations, attendance at rallies and any legal political activity by the opposition.  The potential for the abuse of this technology is great but the benefits cannot be discounted.  Missing children, the movements of registered sex offenders and criminals in general could be monitored, the issue is how to make sure these tools are used for good and not evil.

Face recognition


Facing the facts

Use of the software is spreading faster than laws to regulate it are being written.  Companies like KeyLemon.com are selling software that links your image to your PC, replacing a password with your face and snapping any intruders so you can see who tried to get into your system while you were away.  Greater use and product availability is providing businesses and strangers with access to privileged information.  According to Derek Harris of Gigaom.com, “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.”  This means that one photo could lead to details on where you live, an estimation on how much money you have, what you like and where you go.  Whether governments should be the powers to decide how and when the software can be used has been debated too, considering how this could affect free thought and movement.

Perhaps a few more hearings and discussions will need to take place before the public are satisfied that facial recognition is a useful tool and won’t fundamentally curb privacy, opening up a Pandora’s box of information to advertisers, agencies and random strangers.  The simple answer for anyone worried is to take extra precautions with your on-line identity.  Those embarrassing and incriminating photos you have tucked away behind passwords should probably not be on-line at all if you want to limit all chances of exposure.



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