Thursday, December 5, 2013

Passive facial recognition - is the solution scarier than the problem?

Disclosures first: I am employed in the biometric industry. The views in this post are my own.

One of many biometric technologies is facial recognition. With the increasing presence of stationary cameras throughout cities, and the increasing presence of wearable computers (such as Google Glass) that can capture images, there are a number of discussions regarding when facial recognition (and other technologies, such as audio recording) can and cannot be used.

To, image problems, Google has prohibited the use of facial recognition on Google Glass.

For B.J. Murphy, this is a mistake:

I believe Google is making a huge mistake in completely banning facial recognition systems for its Glass product. In my opinion, such a system could be used to help save thousands of lives. But then, we’re too damn caught up on absolute privacy that we’re willing to sacrifice actual, physical lives to ensure our privacy remains untainted. Such individualist dogma is deadly.

It seems as if Murphy is wildly exaggerating - if Google Glass doesn't include facial recognition, people will die? But Murphy actually does have a use case - and, as is often true when controversial points are proposed, it's all "for the children."

Murphy imagines a scenario in which the roving cameras on Google Glass are outfitted with special "Amber Alert" software that looks for known missing children, and when one is found, the Google Glass app automatically sends the information off to the authorities.

There's one catch, however - the person wearing the Google Glass doesn't know any of the specifics.

A mandatory app was included with Glass, which was connected with Amber Alert systems. The app has Glass quietly scanning each face you cross paths with, but doesn't reveal their names, nor does it alert you that it's currently scanning. For all you know, it's a normal day like any other.

As the Glass user is walking about, the camera detects a young girl and an older man, conducts a facial recognition search - again, without your knowledge - and identifies the girl as missing.

[W]ithout alerting you, the app then - albeit quietly - takes a snapshot of the girl and unknown male captor, contacts a 911 operator program, and delivers GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken and in which direction the girl was walking. The police show up, arrest the male captor, and contacts the parents of the missing child informing them that she'd been found and safe.

In Murphy's scenario, the child's parents or guardians provided permission to enter the girl's facial information into the system.

But you didn't provide any such consent.

To me, the "solution" is more worrisome than the problem that it is intended to solve.

Murphy is obviously aware that there's been a huge brouhaha over the last year about the activities of the U.S. National Security Agency. Numbers that were dialed on mobile phones were recorded without our consent, and even U.S. Senators who were supposedly monitoring the program were unaware of what was going on.

And now we're seriously considering INCREASING the monitoring capabilities, without allowing people to opt out.

This can raise a number of Constitutional and other issues. For example, let's assume that Person A is wearing Google Glass, and that a missing child shows up in his/her view. Further monitoring reveals that the child is actually living with the Google Glass wearer. To some, this is a crime that is solved. To others, this is a violation of the Constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

But there's another issue - one that history has shown can happen time and time again. If such a system were to be implemented, the agencies involved would solemnly pledge that the information captured by the cameras would only be used to capture child abductors, and that the people who captured the information would remain completely anonymous. As we have seen throughout history, however, those assurances aren't worth a thing.

Hey, Gwen! We got a hit!

We do?

Yes! Laura Korpi, age 8, from Simi Valley, California, with a man. Her mother has custody, but she disappeared after visiting her father.

Is the man in the image her father?

The man is...just a minute...not her father. But since this is important, I'll use the NSA exception to find out exactly who the man is. Just a sec...The search will take three minutes.

So while we're waiting for the search results, who captured the image of Laura and the man? Use the NSA exception to find out.

OK, Gwen, the person with the wearable device who captured the picture, it's Reginald Harris the Fourth.

And where was the image captured?

Um, the coordinates are...outside of a Mercedes Benz dealership. I just got the ID of the guy who was with the girl, by the way.

Forget that. Why is Reginald Harris near a Mercedes Benz dealership?

Gwen, you're getting off track!

Mary, don't you remember what our boss said to us this morning? We need to use the IRS exception when warranted, and when someone's outside a Mercedes Benz dealership, it's certainly warranted.

Gwen, I'm trying to solve a child abduction case!

And Mary, I'm trying to solve a tax fraud case! Isn't it obvious what the priority is here? Oh, by the way, is Reginald Harris a registered Republican, or a registered Democrat? That could make a difference.

While technology itself is neutral, it can be used for good or abused for evil. So if we're in a situation where we're treading on Constitutional thin ground, we need to have a REALLY good reason to venture into the gray area.

Credit Tad Donaghe for the initial share of Murphy's article.
blog comments powered by Disqus