Facial Recognition Technology And Your Rights

According the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are already incorporating facial recognition technology into their extensive biometric databases.  These databases are accessible to state and local law enforcement and other federal agencies.  What’s more, businesses such as Apple, Facebook, and various mobile app providers have already begun to index faces for private face recognition databases.

Significant First and Fourth Amendment issues are raised by the application of facial recognition technology.

According to EFF Staff Attorney, Jennifer Lynch, who testified at a Senate hearing on the 17th, the scope of Constitutional protections in this area is unclear. Lynch said one problem is “[f]ace recognition allows for covert, remote and mass capture and identification of images—and the photos that may end up in a database include not just a person’s face but also how she is dressed and possibly whom she is with.”

EFF elaborates:

While people cannot participate in society without showing their faces in public, they still have an expectation of privacy in their biometric data. Jennifer therefore stated that there should be ‘a warrant requirement based on probable cause for police to use this technology.’ At the same time, the use of social media to communicate with family and friends has become an important practice. Automatic connection between peoples’ faces and their use of social media is therefore troubling.

Jennifer therefore asked Congress ‘to limit unnecessary biometrics collection; instill proper protections on data collection, transfer, and search; ensure accountability; mandate independent oversight; require appropriate legal process before government collection; and define clear rules for data sharing at all levels.'”

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) held the hearing and said  “the dimensions of our faces are as unique to us as our fingerprints. And right now technology exists that gives the government and companies the ability to figure out your name and other personal information about you with nothing more than a photograph. I’m holding a hearing in my subcommittee to find out what this new technology means for our privacy and if our current laws are doing enough to protect Americans.”

The technology can be used to verify a person’s identity or to scan crowds for suspected terrorists or criminals. Then too, it has been used to uncover thousands of incidences of drivers license fraud, according to Minneapolis-St.Paul Fox affiliate 9 .

Dr. Brian Martin of MorphoTrust, the Bloomington, Minnesota company that developed the software used to assist in finding approximately 24,000 fraudulent Minnesota drivers licenses, was among those who testified at the hearing. Martin acknowledged that the technology is advancing quickly.

On the other hand, privacy expert Rich Neumeister argued that while finding fraud is good, no obstacles exist that would stop police from using facial recognition to identify political demonstrators.  “When I get my drivers license, they’re not telling me it could be used for this and this and this — and it could be sold to a private company,” Neumeister explained.

For example, Facebook utilizes a software program to recommend friends to tag in the photos its users upload and they don’t make it easy to opt out.

During the hearing, Franken questioned Facebook on whether it would share its data with law enforcement agencies or other third parties. Rob Sherman, Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy, would not commit to saying Facebook would never turn over this data but delivered a somewhat vague statement, saying any changes in its policies would be subject to a “robust” process.

Carnegie Mellon University researcher, Alessandro Acquisti, has suggested that the prevalent availability of facial recognition technology could significantly impact the nature of privacy and anonymity. Acquisti’s team found the technology was able to identify 1 in 3 students it photographed on a college campus. In additon to that, for some of those the team was also able to “predict Social Security numbers and discover other sensitive information.”

“Your phone will tell you the name of that person at the party whose name you always forget,” Acquisti told the committee. “Or it will tell the stalker in the bar the address where you live.”

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