Face recognition technology is a powerful way to confirm identity, like fingerprinting. But unlike fingerprinting, it can be done at a distance and without our knowledge or consent. Like other technologies that risk our privacy, opponents fear that it will give unprecedented reach to government, law enforcement and corporations who want to surveil citizens. Think Minority Report. Think 1984.
The technology already exists. It's how Facebook or Google Plus automatically suggests name tags for people in our photographs. But how it will be used and by whom is yet to be decided by U.S. legislators on a state or federal level.
Law enforcement in New York, Pennsylvania and California use face-recognition system when there is surveillance video of a crime. They compare the face from video stills to an image gallery of convicted criminals and look for a match.
Some casinos "faceprint" visitors so they can identify repeat big-spending customers for special treatment. In Japan, a few grocery stores use face recognition software to identify shoplifters.
Google has applied for a patent on a method to identify faces in videos and another for a method that would allow people to log onto devices by winking.
Facebook has developed DeepFace, which has a human-like accuracy in identifying people by their faces.
How does face recognition software work? First you need to create a large database of faces. "Software automatically converts the topography of each face in the gallery into a unique mathematical code, called a faceprint," writes Natasha Singer of The New York Times. "Once people are faceprinted, they may be identified in existing or subsequent photographs or as they walk in front of a video camera."
Back in 2012, Obama published a plan for a consumer privacy bill of rights. It included a plan for trade and advocacy groups to create "codes of conduct for the use of drones, data-mining by mobile apps and other consumer-tracking technologies," according to Singer.
Civil liberties advocates worry that face recognition software will undermine people's ability to conduct their personal business anonymously in stores, hotels and other public spaces. For this reason, Texas and Illinois have passed laws requiring that people be notified and their permission obtained before taking facial scans or other biometric information.
For more than a year, civil liberties and consumer advocate groups and trade associations have been in talks under the auspices of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department, to decide what rules should govern the commercial use of face recognition technology.
But the civil liberties and consumer advocate groups announced today that they are withdrawing from the talks. "The privacy advocates said they were giving up on talks because they could not achieve what they consider minimum rights for consumers - the idea that companies should seek and obtain permission before employing face recognition to identify individual people on the street," writes Singer.
With or without the consumer advocates, the participants intend to continue trying to develop a workable code of conduct for facial recognition privacy, Carl Szabo, policy counsel for NetChoice, told The New York Times.
Conversations about face recognition technology always reminds me of this hilarious video by Waverly Films called "That's My Face!" Check it out.