Earlier this summer Facebook rolled out facial recognition software that identifies users even when they appear in untagged photos. Like every other time the social networking site has introduced a creepy, invasive new feature, they made it the default setting without telling anyone.
Once people realized that Facebook was basically harvesting biometric data, the usual uproar over the site’s relentless corrosion of privacy ensued. Germany even threatened to sue Facebook for violating German and EU data protection laws and a few other countries are investigating. But facial recognition technology is hardly confined to Facebook — and unlike the social networking site, there’s no “opt-out” of leaving your house.
Post-9/11, many airports and a few cities rushed to install cameras hooked to facial recognition technology, a futuristic apparatus that promised to pick out terrorists and criminals from milling crowds by matching their faces to biometric data in large databases.
Many programs were abandoned a few years later, when it became clear they accomplished little beyond creeping people out. Boston’s Logan Airport scrapped face recognition surveillance after two separate tests showed only a 61.4 percent success rate. When the city of Tampa tried to keep tabs on revelers in the city’s night-club district, the sophisticated technology was bested by people wearing masks and flicking off the cameras.
Human ingenuity aside, most facial recognition software could also be foiled by eyewear, a bad angle or somebody making a weird face. But nothing drives innovation like the promise of government contracts! In the past few years, face recognition technology has advanced substantially, moving from 2-d to 3-d scanning that can capture identifying information about faces even in profile. Another great leap forward, courtesy of Identex (now L-1 Identity Solutions, Inc.), combines geometric face scanning and “skinprint” technology that maps pores, skin texture, scars and other identifying facial marks captured in high-resolution photos.
As face recognition and other biometrics advance, the technology has begun to proliferate in two predictable realms: law enforcement and commerce. Here are 5 places besides Facebook you might encounter face recognition and other biometric technology — not that, for the most part, you would know it if you did.
1. The streets of America
In the fall, police officers from 40 departments will hit the streets armed with the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS) device. The gadget, which attaches to an iPhone, can take an iris scan from 6 inches away, a measure of a person’s face from 5 feet away, or electronic fingerprints, according to Computer vision central. This biometric information can be matched to any database of pictures, including, potentially, one of the largest collections of tagged photos in existence: Facebook. The process is almost instant, so no time for a suspect to opt out of supplying law enforcement with a record of their biometric data.
Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told AlterNet that while it’s unclear how individual departments will use the technology, there are two obvious ways it tempts abuse. Since officers don’t have to haul in an unidentified suspect to get their fingerprints, they have more incentive to pull people over, increasing the likelihood of racial profiling. The second danger lurks in the creation and growth of personal information databases. Biometric information is basically worthless to law enforcement unless, for example, the pattern of someone’s iris can be run against a big database full of many people’s irises.