Saturday, March 20, 2010

Privacy rights vs. privacy rights - the intersection of photography and facial recognition

[Disclosure: The author is employed in the biometrics industry, and has worked for and worked with several companies that offer facial recognition solutions.]

While the general public is hearing more and more about facial recognition these days, it's actually been around for a while. Briefly, a facial recognition system works by comparing features from a face against features from another face, or from an entire database of faces. And it's those databases that are the subject of discussion.

The first common application of facial recognition was in the criminal arena. In this case, you don't have a choice regarding whether or not you're put in the database - if you're arrested, your facial image (or, in criminal terms, your mugshot) can be captured, stored in the database, and (with certain restrictions) used to solve crimes and identify people. Let's say that I was arrested a few years ago for shoplifting, and then get arrested again one Saturday night. When the officer questions me, I claim that I am Sandra Bullock. For some strange reason the officer does not believe my statement, so the officer takes my picture and searches it against a database of faces, discovering that I am not Sandra Bullock, and that I have been arrested before. Provided that the system is accurate, many (but not all) people agree that this is a legitimate use of facial recognition technology.

Over the last couple of years, new uses for facial recognition have emerged. And these aren't for crooks - these are for friends. In this case, the database is a database of photos that you've collected, in which some of the people in the photos have been identified. Once you've identified a face in one photo, the facial recognition software can then scan the other photos and look for the same face. Here's how Apple pushed its iPhoto product:

Now this isn't just restricted to photos. Either the criminal technology or the "friends" technology can be used to identify real people moving around the planet. If you're terrible with names, then you can just grab an image of the person walking up to you, find out the person's name, his/her Twitter account, and so forth.

This all long as the person is in the database of identified people.

So far, the new applications of facial recognition have all been opt-in, where the person has consented to place his/her information in the database. (Criminals, of course, have no choice in the matter.) But what if...well, I'll let Internet Evolution tell it:

If expanded to include public images from other sources (Websites, blogs, and open social networking information) a very broad system for recognition could be devised.

Civil libertarians see serious privacy implications in such a system. Sociopaths and stalkers might use the technology to pick out victims. Other criminals might scan crowds in expensive neighborhoods, to see who’s not home (and thus whose home may be vulnerable to burglary). Blackmailers might frequent shady areas (bars, brothels, and gambling dens) to capture images and identify potential targets.

This is NOT opt-in. In this case, let's say that someone - I'll choose Sandra Bullock again - is in a public place. If a photographer takes Bullock's picture in a public place, and identifies the image as Bullock, then it is possible to track Sandra Bullock's every move.

One emotional response would be to restrict photography in public places, and state that you cannot take a photo of anyone or anything unless the subject of the photo has consented to this. This, claim some, is the way to guarantee privacy.

And how do you guarantee privacy? You round up the photographers, or at least find out what they're taking pictures of, and why. This way you guarantee privacy.

Or do you?

Despite repeated government and police assurances that it would not be happening any more, ordinary people are still being arrested for taking pictures in the UK, under the pernicious terms of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, and not just in London. This time, a photographer video camera user managed to film the process of his arrest. There particularly ridiculous aspects of this case are firstly that the officer, when challenged on his assertion that this was a terrorism-related offence, changed her charge to that of anti-social behaviour (which isn’t a crime as such, anyway)....

Yes, that's correct - photographers have privacy rights also. For every civil libertarian who is defending the right of someone to not have his/her picture taken, there is another civil libertarian who is defending the right of the photographer to take the picture.

Now different laws exist in different jurisdictions - Internet Evolution focuses on United States laws, while notes from the ubiquitous surveillance society focuses on United Kingdom law - but in essence the issue is similar in both countries - whose right to privacy is more important?
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