While facial recognition technology is quickly becoming a ubiquitous addition to our digital lifestyle, both its privacy implications and legal limitations are being questioned by the US Senate, before things get out of hand.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, led by committee chairman Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), met last week to discuss both the potential and pitfalls of facial recognition software, the latest cutting edge tech already employed by the likes of Facebook, Google, and others.
The committee called representatives from a host of disparate agencies, from law enforcement to social networking, to explain and defend how facial recognition technology is currently being used and what sorts of privacy issues it raises. While no decision was levied following the meetings, the preliminary conclusion seems to be: there are serious privacy issues inherent in the collection and use of people’s facial image.
For those who might not know, such facial recognition technology has already been employed by Facebook (among others), the social network arguing that such an addition to the site’s popular photo tagging is harmless; a benign yet helpful technology. Beyond that, law enforcement has long employed facial recognition software, an important tool in helping find wanted suspects or even missing people.
But of course when technologies are widely employed by law enforcement and quietly introduced by technology companies, it rightly raises questions with privacy groups, especially given the fact that there are really no rules governing the collection of your facial image or how it can or should be used.
With that said, in the ongoing technology vs. privacy debates one issue has worked its way onto centre stage: data aggregation. While few people care that they’re asked to include their birthdays to sign up for social networking or that they’ve been tagged in a picture, all these bits of information are part of a larger digital profile that companies are able to make; meaning that as companies aggregate more data about you, they have better insight into things you likely consider private.
”The thing people really care about is data aggregation,” Nita Farahany, a Duke University professor of law who testified at the hearing, told tech site TechNewsWorld. “Their concern is about the triangulation of their face [with other data] as a way to access a lot more information about them. I think that’s what people really worry about — how others can use their face to get instant access to lots of information.”
Simply put, facial data in and of itself is not a serious privacy concern, but how that information will later be combined with other personal data, not to mention who will then have access to that private data and what it might be used. “Having information alone is not particularly frightening, but people worry about who has access to that information,” said Farahany.
In the end it should really come as no surprise to hear that the wheels of bureaucracy are turning slowly, meaning that while it may behoove companies like Facebook to be sensitive to privacy concerns, there is no pending legislation to regulate the implementation of facial recognition, just lots of talking.