Attorney: Facial Recognition Tech Is Rocketing Toward ‘Mass-Scale’ Head Scanning Faster Than We Can Control

Wednesday, July 25, 2012
By Paul Martin

Facial recognition tech is rocketing ahead of laws that can control it

Al Franken wants to legislate facial recognition before it gets out of hand.

by Casey Johnston
Arstechnica.com
July 19 2012

“Many Americans don’t realize they’re already in a facial recognition database,” Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Wednesday in a hearing on the technology. Addressing Senator Al Franken and the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, Lynch pointed out that there is a painful disconnect between how little personal action is required to capture a face and how much personal information can be associated with it. All that, thanks to the Internet. As it is, Lynch said, “Americans can’t take precautions to prevent the collection of their image.”

Senator Franken called the hearing out of concern for the speed at which facial recognition technology is progressing as its use remains unregulated. Dr. Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said facial recognition could soon become a casual pursuit as computers get smaller, more powerful, and cloud computing costs come down. “Within a few years, real-time, automated, mass-scale facial recognition will be technologically feasible and economically efficient,” Acquisti wrote in a statement; for companies, for friends, and for law enforcement.

Facial recognition has two characteristics that alarmed most members of the panel. First, faces (unlike other common information gatekeepers like passwords or PIN numbers) can’t be changed for protection. Second, neither permission nor interaction is required for one person to capture the face of another. If they’re in public, their visage is fair game. Facial recognition “creates acute privacy concerns that fingerprints do not” because of the ease of collection, Franken said.

But facial recognition itself is less of a concern than the supplementary data that drives it. Several panelists described scary and intrusive applications of facial recognition: a random person takes a photo of another and an app pulls up their address and the names of family and friends; a camera in a pharmacy recognizes your face and asks loudly whether you need more Imodium—and here’s a dollar-off coupon toward your purchase. “It’s the aggregation that frightens people,” said Dr. Nita Farahany, a professor at the Duke University School of Law. “We don’t stop the flow of information, or say certain applications are limited or permissible.”

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