Monday, September 5, 2011

Five additional unexpected places you can be tracked with facial recognition technology

The normal disclosure applies - I'm employed in the biometrics industry.

Alternet recently ran a post entitled 5 Unexpected Places You Can Be Tracked With Facial Recognition Technology. For example, place number 2 is the DMV. As Alternet notes:

Slightly fewer than half of the DMVs in the US have the capacity to run your picture through biometric databases. Ostensibly, these searches are intended to catch people trying to collect multiple IDs from different states. Fair enough. But as EFF's Lee Tien told AlterNet, the DMV can also log into and run a person's face against any government database, including ones that hold criminal records.

Alternet makes the point that even if a government agency or private enterprise states that they do not intend to do such a thing, a bad apple employed by the agency/company is technically capable of doing such a thing, and it's possible that an entire organization may do something that they publicly say that they won't do.

My belief is that there are bureaucratic barriers to this type of cooperation between two companies. While some might like to imagine that the FBI is secretly plotting with the CIA to send our information to a secret site in Brussels, the truth of the matter is that the FBI isn't necessarily willing to give something to the CIA and let them get all the credit; they'd rather keep it for themselves. (If you want to see this inter-agency competition in action, ask a soldier what he thinks about marines, and vice versa.)

But a bigger issue is revealed when you realize what facial recognition is. At the end of the day, facial recognition is a computerized method of doing what human beings do all the time - recognize faces. Granted that the power of the computer offers some significant horsepower to the activity, but facial recognition is not some brand new science. When I go home tonight and a woman greets me at the door, I use (drumroll) facial recognition to identify the woman as my wife.

When you consider this, Alternet should REALLY get worried.

So, as a public service to the general public, I am going to offer five additional places, in addition to the five identified by Alternet, in which you can be tracked via facial recognition.

1. Your yearbook. It seemed so innocent at the time. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and into the 1980s, I attended educational institutions that took my picture every year. Throughout my elementary, junior high, high school, and college years, pictures of me were disseminated to thousands of people. What did they do with them? Did that kid who didn't like me in second grade save my picture and sell it to terrorists?

2. Your driver's license. Yes, I know that the DMV appeared in Alternet's list. But even if the state agency doesn't buy a facial recognition system, there are others who might use your driver's license. Perhaps you're applying for a job or for health insurance or something, and the representative asks for a photocopy of your driver's license. Remember that this photocopy also includes your picture - and if a color photocopier is used, the picture may be of pretty good quality. What happens to that photocopy after it is made? Who has access to it?

3. Your passport. See number 2.

4. That caricature artist on the street. I know that they have them at Disneyland, and I'm sure that they have them at other places also. It seems like an innocent idea at the time - someone offers to draw a caricature of you, and you pay some money and get a caricature of yourself. Now normally the features on your face are exaggerated in different ways, but what if you run into a caricature artist who creates an accurate picture of you? Before you state that sketches can't be used in facial recognition systems, look at Michigan State University's newest area of research.

5. People who perform facial recognition without seeing your face. As Alternet notes, Japan is concentrating on some technologies that don't provide the identity of a person, but provide information about the group in which a person finds him/herself. Two examples:

a) Vending machines: Japanese vending machines suggest soft drinks based on stereotypes based on your gender and age (and the weather).

b) Billboards: Japanese billboards contain technology that figures out a person's sex and age to within 10 years, and presents them with the appropriate advertising.

Well, as advertisers, Klan leaders, and others know, you don't always need a face - or any biometric - to roughly identify the group in which a person belongs. Here are a few examples:

If your name is Mohammed, you might not be the best target audience for a liquor advertisement.

If you are a man who wears size 14 shoes, you are probably not interested in horse jockey clothing.

If you read the Empoprise-BI blog, you are obviously a person of above-average intelligence who is interested in products of the finest quality.

At the end of the day, if you are considering things that are possible, then there are a lot of things that are possible that even EFF and the Alternet haven't truly considered. But I do agree with the conclusion of the Alternet post:

While there's nothing inherently wrong with advances in biometrics, there are also no inherent limits for its use and abuse, as EFF's Tien points out. So it's important to always ask who's controlling the cameras and the databases, and for what purpose.

Just remember that you don't need a camera or a database to conduct abuse. Now where's my yearbook?
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