12 February 2017

FUTURE TRENDS - Concerns Grow as Facial Recognition Software Use Expands

Facial recognition software is a fact of daily life in today’s hybrid digital/physical world.

Some uses are fully consensual and informed, such as enabling (or not) the Microsoft Hello feature.

Other uses, in fact most uses, are more ambiguous when it comes to users’ ability to control when and how facial recognition is used.

Facial recognition in photo software is already notorious for causing problems.

Automatic tagging and facial recognition is meant to save time and make it easier to share your photos with the people in them.

Auto-tagging is a privacy concern, especially for professionals who need to keep their private lives and professional lives strictly separated.

This is a difficult task, and social media makes it more challenging every year.

It’s possible to opt-out of Facebook’s auto-tagging feature, but unless you go through the process of manually opting out, you have no way to control how many photos you’ll find yourself tagged in.

Privacy issues aren’t the only concern when it comes to auto-tagging.

Google has gotten into trouble for a problem in the auto-tagging algorithm that tagged two Black individuals as “gorillas.”

Google isn’t the only software with a race issue, and it’s not the most worrisome, either.

Facial recognition software used by law enforcement has been shown to be significantly less accurate when identifying black individuals, with a match rate that is 5 to 10 percent less accurate than the match rate for white individuals.

Racial bias in photography technology is nothing new, but this problem in facial recognition software used by law enforcement has the potential to cause serious problems for people who do not realize they are even being monitored by the software.

There are nearly 250 million surveillance cameras worldwide, recording people’s movements and faces in areas such as public spaces, streets, stores, and private property.

The software that searches these recordings has become significantly more sophisticated, and the rules about who can access surveillance in order to run facial recognition software are still murky.

Not knowing when you are being entered into a database, or searched through facial recognition databases, is another concern.

A new app released in Russia called FindFace allows users to take a picture of a stranger on the street and the app will search millions of photos on social media to find out who they are.

While this could be used innocently to find missed connections, the risk of abuse by stalkers and abusers is significant.

As Fortune magazine put it, this is a “facial recognition nightmare.”

And abuse by strangers isn’t the only concern. Misuse by law enforcement is also an issue.
A 2016 report by the Georgetown Law Centre on Privacy and Technology calls the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement “the perpetual line-up” and highlights the risks to civilian privacy.

According to The Intercept, in an article that unpacks the report and interviews authors and stakeholders, the report “reveals that police deploy face recognition technology in ways that are more widespread, advanced, and unregulated than anyone has previously reported.”

British filmmaker Karen Palmer created an interactive film and protest simulation to demonstrate how facial recognition software can be used to track protesters, and to point out how easily facial recognition software can be used to surveille in secrecy, and at a distance.

The use of facial recognition software by law enforcement and government is currently unregulated in most jurisdictions, and that’s a major concern for privacy.

This is a growing concern, particularly in America right now.

Both citizens and legislators will have to address issues around the rights to privacy, to free association, and to anonymity.

As always, the balance between personal freedom and governmental control will be tricky, but the software is here to stay, so it’s an issue that will demand a response.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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