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The Future of Facial Recognition Comes Under Scrutiny

by Christina DesMarais on July 24, 2012

The day is likely coming when you could see someone on the street, aim your smartphone at her, and quickly retrieve a list of possible matches for who she is.

That’s because facial-recognition software is getting smarter the more people use it.

Consider Facebook, for example. Every time a user confirms or rejects photo-tagging suggestions the social network gets better at knowing who’s actually in photos people put up on the site.

And Facebook’s facial recognition is on an interesting trajectory. Last week it announced it is buying the Israel-based facial recognition software company

While the social network already uses’s technology for its photo-tagging feature, with the software in-house Facebook will likely improve upon it and try to get people using it on their mobile phones, as well.

And since Facebook owns Instagram it follows that it could employ facial recognition there, as well.

It’s not just Facebook using and improving upon facial recognition. Google and Apple do too, and cameras in many airports, malls and nightclubs have been scanning faces for a while now. The FBI uses it, as do at least 40 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. Even new TVs are coming to market with facial recognition on board.

Understandably, some people find the idea of being unable to be anonymous in public disconcerting, and the subject is getting the attention of lawmakers, as well.

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law met to discuss the pros and cons of facial recognition and question privacy advocates as well as representatives of the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and Facebook, about how it’s being used and potential problems with it.

First, people can’t change their faces to protect their identity. And in this camera-laden world we live in, the likelihood that your face might be captured without your permission is high.

Another big concern is that when facial recognition is paired with data aggregation, faces could begin to be tied with things like medical histories and other personal records or profiles.

The worst culprit when it comes to profiling people might be, again, Facebook.

"Facebook is the classic example of data aggregation," Nita Farahany, a Duke University professor of law who testified at the hearing, told TechNewsWorld. "It has a tremendous amount of information that people voluntarily share, and they're creating a dossier that's much richer than what we're voluntarily sharing with them, including information about attendance at political rallies, physical locations, etc. They claim that untagged photos are deleted from the template, but I would like to see more evidence that this is true."

Facial recognition is also far from a perfected technology. Phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus now come with a facial recognition unlock feature that can be tricked if someone has a photo of the phone’s owner.

Even so, it’s worth remembering that facial recognition can be used for good, such as in helping to find criminals or missing children, as examples.

What’s your feeling on the subject? Does it bother you to think that someday strangers might be able to figure out who you are just by scanning your face? Or isn’t it a big deal?


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