Online Recognition: When Even Your Face Is a Privacy Risk


Imagine living in a world where you could instantly find out the average age of people at a bar, or view an ad specifically tailored for you when you walk by a billboard, or use a website that knows the name of every person in your uploaded pictures.

This may sound like science fiction, but these things actually exist right now. This is the brave new world of facial recognition software, and it is evolving at an ominously fast rate.

While this technology has many benefits and some mind-boggling applications, questions about security and privacy have not yet been adequately addressed. We may be entering an era when even your face is a privacy risk.

Facial Recognition Technology: A Brief Background

Facial recognition technology was originally created by law enforcement agencies, which used it to scan faces in crowds to spot criminals and terrorists. This technology extracts information from a picture by associating it with a specific name, and can then combine with other software to find out personal information about the user.

According to The Los Angeles Times, “Facial recognition software is growing and is being used and further developed by Facebook, Google, Apple, and the U.S. government.”

Many popular programs such as Google’s Picasa, Facebook’s face recognition feature, and Apple’s iPhoto use facial recognition software.

Why We Should Be Concerned

The advent of facial recognition technology creates a big risk regarding the accessibility of personal information. Even facial recognition advocates admit that the more use the technology gets, the higher the likelihood of identity theft or fraud.

Alessandro Acquisiti, a professor of Information Technology at Carnegie Mellon, has conducted several experiments to find out if facial recognition software could match faces to personal information.

He found that by using this technology on students walking around campus, his team was able to find out the Social Security numbers and other personal information about these students from publicly available data. With this kind of technology, it’s easy to see a day where advertisers could link your face to your credit score. By blending information from pictures, facial recognition software, and public data warehouses, hackers will have a much easier time stealing your private information.

As Acquisiti notes, “A person’s face is the veritable link between her offline and online identities. When we share photographs of ourselves online, it becomes possible for others to link our face to our names in situations where we would normally expect anonymity.”

Standing Up for Privacy

Recently, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen expressed concern that Facebook’s face recognition feature compromises consumer privacy, and asked for a meeting with company officials.

While promoting this new technology, Facebook has overlooked a critical component of consumer privacy protections: namely, allowing users to opt-in before Facebook can use these images.

Jepsen joins European Union regulators and consumer advocacy groups that are questioning this Facebook feature.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and three other advocacy groups have filed a complaint asking the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to require Facebook to get affirmative opt-in consent from users before collecting and using their biometric data. Currently, U.S. law does not require that companies obtain explicit consent before storing personal data about an individual.

What You Can Do

One thing each of us can do to protect our anonymity on the web is to opt of out Facebook’s face recognition feature.

To do that, do the following:

  1. In Facebook, go to Account > Privacy Settings.
  2. In the How Tags Work section, click Edit Settings.
  3. In the Tag Suggestions section, click the arrow on the right hand side.
  4. Click the drop-down menu and select Disabled.
  5. Click Okay, and then Done.

Soon, facial recognition software will be commonplace, and something that we may take for granted.

Even now, citizens obtaining an ID or driver’s license must participate in facial recognition, and this data is entered into a national database.

We should be vigilant to make sure facial recognition data is properly protected, and do what we can to limit our risk so that this new era of facial recognition does not make even our faces a privacy risk.

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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.

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