Facial Recognition and Your Privacy

Last week we wrote about the extent of facial recognition technology.  This week we’re writing about facial recognition and its impact on privacy.  In its October report, the Center for Democracy & Technology said it is useful to think of the impact on privacy on three general levels.

Level 1 is simply the counting of faces where no images or information is recorded.  An example of this is facial detection systems that track where a person looks.  This is the least intrusive form of facial recognition.

Level 2 is more intrusive.  This level targets individuals.  Consumers’ facial information is collected and used to tailor ads or other messages to individuals.  An example of this is a billboard that scans the face of a passerby to decide which ad to show him or her.

Level 3 is where individuals are identified and is the most intrusive use of facial recognition technology.  Consumers’ facial information is collected and is linked to an individual’s identity or property.  An example of this is a system that records the unique biometric features of a person’s face in order to pinpoint images of the individual on the web or log that person’s physical location.  Once the person’s face is linked to web images, the system is able to associate the face with internet behavior, travel patterns, place of employment, or other profiles.  This means that any marketer, agency, or random stranger can openly or secretively collect and share the identities and personal information of any individual whose picture is taken by the camera.  When used widely, this technology would allow tracking of individuals without them carrying any special device such as a GPS, RFID, or other tag.

Even more disturbing is a study done by CyLab researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.  Researchers found that using facial recognition software and social media profiles can make it easier to figure out a person’s Social Security number.  They used three different facial recognition technologies: PittPatt face recognizer technology, recently bought by Google; cloud computing, and public information from social networking sites to “identify individuals online and offline in the physical world.”  The researchers say their “results foreshadow a future when we all may be recognizable on the street…by anyone with a smartphone and Internet connection.”

If you think it will be a long time before this technology affects you personally, guess again.  Facebook, Google, and Apple already use this technology to allow you to quickly tag friends in photos.  The European Union grew alarmed about Facebook’s growing biometric database of European citizens and insisted that Facebook stop the practice.  Here in the U.S., the FTC has issued recommendations for businesses using facial recognition technology, and they continue to monitor its growing use.  In the meantime, individuals should be very cautious about revealing any personal information on social networking sites.  You never know who is watching!

For more information you can trust, see

Big Brother is Watching, Really…

Social Networking Safety Tips

Privacy Risks When Posting Smartphone Photos Online Video

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

Facial Recognition and Privacy

Written by

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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