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.
"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."
While the hearing was heavy with concerns, solutions or suggestions for legislating facial recognition were not forthcoming. Should it be policed like wiretaps? Should its use be limited like medical information? Franken asked the Federal Trade Commission's representative, Maneesha Mithal, if she could compel the FTC to mandate that companies make facial imprint-related services an explicit opt-in service only. All Mithal could promise was that she would take the request back to her committee for further consideration.
Data Mining: Big Corporations Are Gathering Every Shred Of Information About You That They Can And Selling It For Profit
When most people think of "Big Brother", they think of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and other shadowy government agencies. Yes, they are definitely watching you, but so are many big corporations.
In fact, there are some companies that are making tens of millions of dollars by gathering every shred of information about all of us that they can and selling it for profit to anyone willing to pay the price. It is called "data mining", and these data miners want to keep track of literally everything that you do. Most people know that basically everything that we do on the Internet is tracked, but data mining goes far beyond that.
When you use a customer rewards card at the supermarket, the data miners know about it. When you pay for a purchase with a credit card or a debit card, the data miners know about it. Every time you buy a prescription drug, that information is sold to someone. Every time you apply for a loan, a whole host of organizations is notified.
Information has become an extremely valuable commodity, and thanks to computers and the Internet it is easier to gather information than ever before. But that also means that our personal information is no longer "private", and this trend is only going to get worse in the years ahead.
The scale of the information gathering that Acxiom does is absolutely mind blowing. If you can believe it, Acxiom actually keeps track of more than 190 million people inside the United States....The company fits into a category called database marketing. It started in 1969 as an outfit called Demographics Inc., using phone books and other notably low-tech tools, as well as one computer, to amass information on voters and consumers for direct marketing.
Almost 40 years later, Acxiom has detailed entries for more than 190 million people and 126 million households in the U.S., and about 500 million active consumers worldwide. More than 23,000 servers in Conway, just north of Little Rock, collect and analyze more than 50 trillion data 'transactions' a year. So what does Acxiom want to know about you? Everything.
It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google. If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams — and on and on. Once they gather all that data, Acxiom analyzes it, packages it and sells it to large corporations such as Wells Fargo, HSBC, Toyota, Ford and Macy's.
Eventually these complicated computer algorithms will be able to make very detailed predictions about your future behavior with a very, very high degree of accuracy. When you add government snooping into the equation, it becomes easy to see why privacy advocates are going crazy these days. Our society is literally being transformed into a technological monitoring grid. Virtually everything we do is monitored, tracked and recorded in some way.