If you use Facebook, you probably know about one of the most prominent facial recognition technologies currently being used: tagging our friends and family in our photos that we upload to the site.
But facial recognition has potentially thousands of other uses: companies are beginning to use facial recognition technology (what they call biometric identification) for preventing unauthorized access to computers or facilities. Likewise, law enforcement uses facial recognition to identify possible criminals and terrorists in large crowds of people, potentially stopping an attack before it happens.
No one doubts that biometric identification is a powerful tool with many possible applications. But there’s a downside to this technology: in essence, our faces can now be used for government tracking and surveillance that was not possible until now. And there are few safeguards currently in place to curb excessive use of this tool.
That’s why I call biometric identification as the scariest privacy issue of all. Because while you can be tracked online when you browse the Internet, and even offline through using your cell phone on public WiFi networks, you can always choose to turn off your computer or leave your phone at home. You can’t exactly leave your face at home.
A Slippery Slope
As Senator Al Franken put it in his U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in 2012, there’s nothing inherently right or wrong with facial recognition software. It’s how we use it that matters. Either we can put safeguards in place to protect people’s privacy, or it could be used by companies and the government that would violate our basic right to privacy.
The government has already installed video cameras in every intersection in New York City and probably most other major cities around the U.S. And in London (and all of the UK) they are thicker than birds. But it’s more than that. What if they linked your face to information they gathered from other sources, such as your name, your social media information, what stores you visited, your medical records, your arrest history, how much money you earn, and your relationship status? It would be very simple to do this.
As we found out with the government using the NSA to spy on the email and phone content of millions of innocent Americans, if you give the government a tool without clear and proper limits in place, they will tend to gather as much information as possible on as many people as possible.
That is to say, there’s a big difference between targeted use of facial recognition technology, such as scanning airport travelers for known terrorists, and simply collecting vast amounts of data on everyone, for possible use later.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson of the Edward Snowden leak, and one that we are still sorting out as a nation. Where is the line drawn between security and privacy? If we want the maximum security possible, we could allow the government access to everything: our private messages, our phone calls, even our mail.
But we value privacy as well, and we hold our inherent right to privacy, otherwise known as the right to be left alone, as one of our most cherished ideals.
A Possible Middle Ground
So is there a way that we could have the best of both worlds? For one, this technology is not going away. I believe the best way forward, as with any new technology, is to take the time to develop stringent and serious privacy protections.
Here are a few steps that both companies as well as the government can do to protect our privacy if they plan on using biometric identification:
- Post easy-to-find notices when facial recognition software is being used.
- Take steps to make sure the collected data is safeguarded against theft or unauthorized use.
- Seek an individual’s explicit permission before using facial recognition to link a face to a name or any other identifiable information.
- Put policies or pass laws to ensure the collected data is used for only the specific purposes indicated.
Collectively, we need to weigh the benefits of facial recognition technology carefully against the risks. There is no doubt that this is powerful technology, but if we let the genie out of the bottle, we have to make sure that proper safeguards are in place to protect all of us from unnecessary privacy intrusions.
Face it, it’s the right thing to do.