Thursday, July 18th, 2019

“This is No Longer Fiction” – The Era of Automatic Facial Recognition and Surveillance Is Here

Published on October 20, 2015 by   ·   1 Comment

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Whenever cryptographer and computer security specialist Bruce Schneier issues a warning about something, I pay close attention.

What follows are excerpts from a recent piece he wrote for Forbestitled, The Era of Automatic Facial Recognition and Surveillance Is Here:

ID checks were a common response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but they’ll soon be obsolete. You won’t have to show your ID, because you’ll be identified automatically. A security camera will capture your face, and it’ll be matched with your name and a whole lot of other information besides. Welcome to the world of automatic facial recognition. Those who have access to databases of identified photos will have the power to identify us. Yes, it’ll enable some amazing personalized services; but it’ll also enable whole new levels of surveillance. The underlying technologies are being developed today, and there are currently no rules limiting their use.

Read that again: “There are no rules limiting their use.”

Walk by a policeman, and she will know your name, address, criminal record, and with whom you routinely are seen. The potential for discrimination is enormous, especially in low-income communities where people are routinely harassed for things like unpaid parking tickets and other minor violations. And in a country where people are arrested for their political views, the use of this technology quickly turns into a nightmare scenario.

The critical technology here is computer face recognition. Traditionally it has been pretty poor, but it’s slowly improving. A computer is now as good as a person. Already Google’s algorithms can accurately match child and adult photos of the same person, and Facebook has an algorithm that works by recognizing hair style, body shape, and body language — and works even when it can’t see faces. And while we humans are pretty much as good at this as we’re ever going to get, computers will continue to improve. Over the next years, they’ll continue to get more accurate, making better matches using even worse photos.

This is no longer fiction. High-tech billboards can target ads based on the gender of who’s standing in front of them. In 2011, researchers at Carnegie Mellon pointed a camera at a public area on campus and were able to match live video footage with a public database of tagged photos in real time. Already government and commercial authorities have set up facial recognition systems to identify and monitor people at sporting events, music festivals, and even churches. The Dubai police are working on integrating facial recognition into Google Glass, and more US local police forces are using the technology.

Companies will spring up whose business models depend on capturing our images in public and selling them to whoever has use for them. If you think this is farfetched, consider a related technology that’s already far down that path: license-plate capture.

Today in the US there’s a massive but invisibleindustry that records the movements of cars around the country. Cameras mounted on cars and tow trucks capture license places along with date/time/location information, and companies use that data to find cars that are scheduled for repossession. One company, Vigilant Solutions, claims to collect 70 million scans in the US every month.The companies that engage in this business routinely share that data with the police, giving the police a steady stream of surveillance information on innocent people that they could not legally collect on their own. And the companies are already looking for other profit streams, selling that surveillance data to anyoneelse who thinks they have a need for it.

I’ve written on this topic several times over the years. See:

How the Repo Industry is Collecting Data on Virtually Every Car in America

Department of Homeland Security Moves to Install National License Plate Tracking System

License Plate Readers Stir Controversy in California as the NYPD Prepares to Use Drones

Already the FBI has a database of 52 million faces, and describes its integration of facial recognition software with that database as “fully operational.” In 2014, FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the database would not include photos of ordinary citizens, although the FBI’s own documents indicate otherwise. And just last month, we learned that the FBI is looking to buy a system that will collect facial images of anyone an officer stops on the street.

I’ve covered this program as well. See:

The FBI Unveils its Controversial Facial Recognition Database with 52 Million Photos to be Stored

FBI Plans to Have 52 Million Photos in Facial Recognition Database by 2015

Last year, the US Department of Commerce tried to prevail upon industry representatives and privacy organizations to write a voluntary code of conduct for companies using facial recognition technologies. After 16 months of negotiations, all of the consumer-focused privacy organizations pulledout of the process becauseindustry representatives were unable to agree on any limitations on something as basic as nonconsensual facial recognition.

Don’t expect to have access to this technology for yourself anytime soon. This is not facial recognition for all. It’s just for those who can either demand or pay for access to the required technologies — most importantly, the tagged photo databases. And while we can easily imagine how this might be misused in a totalitarian country, there are dangers in free societies as well. Without meaningful regulation, we’re moving into a world where governments and corporations will be able to identify people both in real time and backwards in time, remotely and in secret, without consent or recourse.

Despite protests from industry, we need to regulate this budding industry. We need limitations on how our images can be collected without our knowledge or consent, and on how they can be used. The technologies aren’t going away, and we can’t uninvent these capabilities. But we can ensure that they’re used ethically and responsibly, and not just as a mechanism to increase police and corporate power over us.

You have been warned.

Read More HERE
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Readers Comments (1)

  1. John Price John Price says:

    How are we surprised when they can do the same thing on Snapchat?!




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