Big Brother Is Watching, But Is It Who You Thought It Would Be?

The issue isn't what facial recognition has been used for, but for what it COULD be used for.

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In George Orwell’s 1984, every citizen is watched constantly by “Big Brother,” all in an effort to keep them in line.  Orwell wrote the work as a warning.  He feared that governments would go too far in watching its citizens, and the phrase “Big Brother” has become synonymous with overreaching surveillance.

According to the General Accounting Office, Big Brother may almost be here, and while it’s not the government on the other side of the camera, the results are just as ominous.

A future is fast approaching in which billboards call out pedestrians by name, displaying ads they’re likely to be interested in — and in the process endangering an individual’s ability to remain anonymous in public, a federal watchdog says.

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office warns consumers, tech companies and privacy groups that existing federal privacy laws do not expressly limit how businesses can use facial recognition technology.

Some government agencies and privacy advocacy groups believe facial recognition technology, if unregulated, could “give businesses or individuals the ability to identify almost anyone in public without their knowledge or consent and to track people’s locations, movements and companions,” the report said.

In its report — which examined only the commercial, nongovernmental uses of the technology in the United States — GAO noted that some existing federal laws could be stretched to regulate where businesses can capture facial images, what they can share with retailers and practices that are deceptive to consumers.

But it concluded, “federal law does not expressly regulate whether and when firms should notify consumers of their use of facial recognition technology, or seek an individual’s consent prior to identifying them, which has been an area of concern to privacy advocacy organizations and others.”

Facial recognition technology is popular today, GAO found. For instance, on popular social networks such as Facebook, users can quickly “tag” people in photos; security cameras can identify shoplifters in retail stores; and building security systems can restrict entry, among other applications.

The issue, however, isn’t what facial recognition has been used for, but for what it could be used for.

In the future, digital signs “may be used to identify customers by name and target advertising to them based on past purchases or other personal information available about them,” GAO warned in the report, citing interviews with Federal Trade Commission staff. “Facial recognition systems can also be designed to alert staff when known customers enter the store, according to a software vendor with whom we spoke.”

The recent surge in information re-sellers, who might share with other companies what they gather about individuals from facial recognition systems “raises questions about whether face prints and associated personal data may one day be sold or shared,” especially for marketing purposes, GAO found.

And the technology isn’t infallible — it could generate an incorrect match in a security system, leading authorities after the wrong person.

Despite the lack of explicit federal protection against the misuse of facial recognition technology, some groups, such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the International Biometrics and Identification Association and the American Civil Liberties Union are examining the technology’s implications on privacy. ACLU has issued guidelines for companies using the technology, urging they “allow individuals to access, correct and delete their face print information,” among other recommendations intended to improve consumer privacy.

Some existing laws may be used to combat some of this, but none are really prepared for the leap in how the technology may be used that the GAO is talking about.

Is this the government’s new role in the Information Age?  Are “buyer beware” and Terms of Service agreements enough, or should government be there to step in and prosecute violators?

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  1. Keith Glass Reply

    In other words, “Minority Report”, as done in the movies. As this develops, so will a market for “face changers” via makeup or other countermeasures.

    A few examples: