Big Brother is Watching, Really…

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Did you think the new hit TV show “Person of Interest” is science fiction?  Do you ever wonder why an automated advertisement pops up when you walk by a product in a store?  It may surprise you to know that use of facial recognition technology is increasing–from photo tagging on social networking sites to targeting ads in stores or public places to security and authentication, according to a report issued last month by the Center for Democracy and Technology.  This technology has gone beyond government and corporate use and is now being used by handheld consumer devices and free software packages.  Apple iOS5, Windows Mango, and Google’s Android 4.0 mobile operating systems include face detection and recognition APIs as reported by a number of technology experts.  This week we’ll talk about the extent of facial recognition technology, and next week we’ll discuss its effect on privacy.

Facial recognition methods include geometric (calculating distance and size of facial features), photometric (comparing a face against standardized facial features), and skin texture analyses (mapping the unique features on an individual’s skin).  In a 2010 test of facial recognition systems by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, these systems correctly recognized 92% of unknown persons from a database of 1.6 million criminal records.  And computer “vision” is getting better, also, being able to recognize people from 15 – 20 meters and being able to track a person from 25 – 50 meters.  At the same time, the quantity of photos and videos of people on the Internet is also increasing with Facebook alone reportedly possessing an estimated 60 billion photos by late 2010.

Hundreds of millions of us are unknowingly participating in commercial facial recognition systems.  According to the report, Google’s Picasa photo editing software and Picasa Web Albums use face recognition by default as does Facebook although users can remove tags after the fact.  Some online image hosting services such as Flickr use third party face recognition software such as Polar Rose, Riya, PhotoTagger, and Face.com.

Besides being used on social networking sites, facial recognition and detection applications are recording faces in public places and businesses.  The report says there were an estimated 2 million displays in the U.S. in 2010.  These digital signage systems aren’t set up to recognize individuals yet, but instead calculate their age, gender, and how long they watch the display, and then the display reacts to their emotional states.

The FTC has been investigating the growing use of this technology and last month released a staff report on best practices for protecting consumer privacy while promoting innovation.  They recommend that companies using facial recognition technologies design their services with privacy in mind and make it clear to consumers that facial recognition technology is being used.  In the conclusion of the report, the FTC says it “will continue to monitor this area and explore ways to work with industry and educate and protect consumers.”

For more information you can trust, see

Facebook’s New Facial Recognition Feature: What You Need to Know

FTC Recommends Best Practices for Companies That Use Facial Recognition Technologies

FBI Testimony: What Facial Recognition Technology Means for Privacy and Civil Liberties

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Jackie is the Operations and Education Foundation Assistant with the BBB. She assists consumers with business inquiries, and does presentations to senior groups and high school students. She is a regular contributor to the blog.

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