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article imageOp-Ed: Is facial recognition tech cool or creepy? Consider the issues

By Leigh Goessl     Nov 13, 2012 in Technology
Over the past several years, facial recognition technology has sparked some controversy leading many to question whether or not the technology is "cool" or "creepy".
Perhaps it's a bit of both.
Facial recognition is a rapidly growing technology. As this innovation progresses, the capabilities have significantly expanded over the past several years. The capacity of what it can accomplish is pretty amazing when you think about it.
For instance, earlier this year it was announced Hitachi Kokusai Electric had developed a security camera that could process a whopping 36 million faces in one second. Facebook has integrated the technology in its network to automatically suggest who the identity of the photo is and suggest a tag.
Surveillance in general has become a way of life, but facial recognition isn't necessarily inclusive. At least, not yet. Currently facial recognition is being used, or at least considered, in various ways including social media, law enforcement and commercial business. The possibilities sound pretty fascinating, however, digging deeper into these possibilities illuminates some issues.
Facial recognition in the commercial sphere
As with most technologies that have become widely available in the last two decades, facial recognition technology is rapidly entering the commercial realm, both in-person and online.
NEC, a Japanese company, has recently developed a new facial recognition system that is designed for retailers. Gizmodo reported the software has the capability to "determine the age and gender of shoppers, and tracks how long and how often they visit a given store. The collected data can be used by a retailer to analyze trends in who exactly is visiting its stores, and what they can do to encourage repeat visits."
Not to mention, while Facebook is currently only using the technology for photo tagging, the question begs asking, could this change in the future and its uses be expanded? It is important to note, Facebook has not said it would, but realistically, Facebook or any other social network could consider it down the road now that the door has been opened.
Over time the personal information of consumers has become a commodity, it is not hard to imagine the value biometric data could generate for commercial purposes.
Security issues
Companies buy and sell consumer information on a routine basis, and, as a result, mass quantities of data have been compiled. This has become an attractive target for criminals as data breaches are an ongoing and growing problem. As such, security is a huge concern, and many experts feel not enough companies pay due care to it.
As biometric data on consumers is compiled, physical attributes have high potential to also become a commodity, and perhaps also put personal identity at further risk. Imagine the damage criminals can inflict once they get their hands on this information?
Last year a team of researchers conducted a study which concluded identities and personal information, including Social Security numbers, could be traced by using facial recognition software and social media profiles.
"A person's face is the veritable link between her offline and online identities," Alessandro Acquisti, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, and associate professor of information technology and public policy at the Heinz College, had said in 2011. "When we share tagged photos of ourselves online, it becomes possible for others to link our face to our names in situations where we would normally expect anonymity."
Privacy issues
As with other technologies, facial recognition creates issues with privacy. The Internet was once widely anonymous, as was walking down a busy city street, however these days, not so much.
While discounts and other deals may be enticing, essentially privacy is given up in exchange. If the aforementioned NEC product becomes widely used in commercialism, consumers will be givng up a wealth of information to businesses. It is not clear yet whether or not this will be with or without consumer consent.
The technology is moving so fast that last month the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a set of "Best Practices" guidelines for companies using or planning to use facial recognition technologies. This list addresses both security and privacy concerns, and appears to be proactive in considering ways facial recognition might be used in the future.
"First, they should obtain consent before using consumers’ images or any biometric data in a different way than they represented when they collected the data," the FTC wrote in its report [PDF]. "Second, companies should not use facial recognition to identify anonymous images of a consumer to someone who could not otherwise identify him or her, without obtaining the consumer’s affirmative consent first."
What about creepy?
In many ways, big brother has long arrived, but widespread use of facial recognition kicks it up several notches. While businesses can potentially offer benefits to consumers through tracking of biometrics and shopping behaviors, it's hard to say it's not creepy.
Consider government tracking and public surveillance; factor in extensive consumer tracking, this pretty much will capture a full profile of one's lifestyle and decision making process made throughout the course of the day.
This, of course, would become valuable data in both the government and commercial sense.
Is it really worth the tradeoffs?
Technology moves at a much faster pace than any laws that address privacy and/or security. Unfortunately, many organizations and businesses run with fantastic visions, focusing on the "cool" factor without looking at the full picture of how their decisions may have a long-term impact on the broader society.
Chances are the technology will be widely implemented in time either way, but if businesses consider the wider impact, perhaps some of the aforementioned issues can be mitigated with proactive planning.
“Fortunately, the commercial use of facial recognition technologies is still young. This creates a unique opportunity to ensure that as this industry grows, it does so in a way that respects the privacy interests of consumers while preserving the beneficial uses the technology has to offer,” the FTC staff report had said.
If any of these new innovations are employed in the near future, Big Brother will have arrived in a big way. However one feels about facial recognition technology, a question everyone, both consumers and organizational decision makers, should perhaps be asking themselves is whether or not the tradeoffs are worth the benefits?
With limited use and consideration of the bigger picture, perhaps some aspects of facial recognition could be beneficial, however should definitely not be a free for all and consumer consent should be a consideration.
What do you think? "Creepy" direction or "cool" possibilities?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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