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Will Technology Recognize Our Right to Privacy?


Facial recognition’s roots are more than fifty years old, but advances have made it a profound new frontier in the debate around privacy and technology. We may enjoy the idea of facial recognition conveniences, but how comfortable are we with retailers, governmental agencies, and advertisers leveraging the same technology?

Are you concerned about machines which can pick your face out of a crowd? Would you mind if it also meant you never had to remember a password or pin code again? Do you feel you should be notified in any situation where your faceprint is recorded?

What is a Facial Recognition System?

Facial recognition systems are a form of biometric identifier. They “recognize” a person from a digital image, relying on distinguishing landmarks and features called “nodal points.” Nodal points include details such as:

· Distance between the eyes

· Width of the nose

· Depth of the eye sockets

· The shape of the cheekbones

· The length of the jaw line

In its most basic form, a combination of these measurements creates a numerical code known as a faceprint, which is then stored in a database. While early systems required a relatively clear 2D portrait image to take meaningful data, more sophisticated systems are now able to use 3D cameras and perform surface texture analysis. They’re even working on systems which perform facial recognition in the dark.

What Are The Privacy Concerns?

Facial recognition systems prompt us to ask complex questions about the boundaries between what’s public and private, as well as the role it plays in concealed surveillance.

Many issues are open for debate and personal reflection including:

· Is the makeup of your face personal data?

· Do you believe that biometrics are more intrusive because they’re based on your body rather than data such as your email address or mobile device’s MAC address?

· Should this data only be collected and used with your permission?

These questions are hardly restricted to the physical world, as social media companies have made use of facial recognition technology for some time. According to a recent article, Facebook remembers your face when you are identified in a photo so it may be tagged in other photos. One of the largest concerns about this approach to facial recognition is how social media companies like Facebook also aggregate massive amounts of personal information such as biographical data, location data, and networks of friends. What are the implications of having this information associated with your face and used for behavioral advertising, for example?

Privacy advocates strive to empower people with the option of opting out of facial recognition programs. Proponents of the technology feel providing this option may stifle innovation and stunt the growth of genuinely beneficial applications. Google provides users with the ability to opt-out of its “find my face” features, but there is a widespread lack of transparency where and when these features are in use. That’s a problem privacy professionals and informed consumers would like to see addressed soon.

There’s also substantial debate whether or not facial recognition, or biometrics in general, can be trusted as a form of improved security. It remains to be seen if the majority of users feel comfortable sharing biometric information with banks and other large institutions if it turns out the security improvements are marginal.

Facial Recognition And The Law

So where does the law stand with regards to facial recognition technology? The answer seems to be “largely on the sidelines.” According to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on facial recognition technology:

“No federal privacy law expressly regulates commercial uses of facial recognition technology, and laws do not fully address key privacy issues stakeholders have raised, such as the circumstances under which the technology may be used to identify individuals or track their whereabouts and companions. Laws governing the collection, use, and storage of personal information may potentially apply to the commercial use of facial recognition in specific contexts, such as information collected by health care entities and financial institutions. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission Act has been interpreted to require companies to abide by their stated privacy policies.”

At present, only two states regulate commercial use of facial recognition technology. Texas and Illinois have privacy laws addressing biometric identification, including facial recognition technology. Texas and Illinois laws:

· Require that before collecting a biometric identifier of an individual, a private entity must obtain that individual’s consent;

· Prohibit an entity in possession of a biometric identifier from sharing that person’s biometric identifier with a third party, unless the disclosure meets an exception, such as for law enforcement or to complete a financial transaction that the individual requested or authorized; and

· Govern the retention of biometric records, including requirements for protecting biometric information and  destroying such information after a certain period of time.

Though the reference GAO report makes no recommendations, previous GOA reports suggest that “Congress consider strengthening the consumer privacy framework to reflect changes in technology and the marketplace.” This would include facial recognition technology.

What Can You Do?

Facial recognition is a complex and controversial tool.  Like any emerging technology, it has its benefits, and potential drawbacks.

If you have an interest in facial recognition technology and your privacy, awareness is the best place to start. Here are a few things you can do:

1. Look for reference to facial recognition and photo tagging in the privacy policies of apps, websites, and services you use.

2. Periodically review the settings section of these apps and services for options which deal specifically with photo settings, the ability for others to identify you in pictures, and whether or not you can activate or deactivate facial recognition.

3. Setup a Google News Alert for “facial recognition” to help you stay on top of updates in industry self-regulation and additional federal or state regulation.

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