- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

As you scan the face on that giant billboard, it may just be scanning your face right back.

Increasingly sophisticated digital facial-recognition technology is opening new possibilities in business, marketing, advertising and law enforcement while exacerbating fears about the loss of privacy and the violation of civil liberties.

Businesses foresee a day when signs and billboards with face-recognition technology can instantly scan your face and track what other ads you’ve seen recently, adjust their message to your tastes and buying history and even track your birthday or recent home purchase. The FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies already are exploring facial-recognition tools to track suspects, quickly single out dangerous people in a crowd or match a grainy security-camera image against a vast database to look for matches.

Many fear that future is coming too quickly, with facial-recognition technology becoming increasingly advanced, available and affordable before restrictions on its use can be put into place. Concerns have been raised on Capitol Hill in recent weeks that FBI searches using the technology could trample Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, while some in the industry say excessive regulations could cripple cutting-edge technology.


“In our country, government shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder unless it has a reason,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project. “They should not be collecting data on innocent subjects.”

The potential to “data-mine” raw video or photography using facial-recognition technology is another concern, he said, but one that could clash with First Amendment rights on the right to photograph.

Facebook enters the fray

Sparking fresh concerns on the commercial front was social media behemoth Facebook’s acquisition last month of the Israeli technology company Face.com.

The acquisition enabled Facebook to implement a feature called “tag suggestions,” which lets the social networking site use facial recognition technology to make suggestions about who is in a picture. Users can opt out of this service, but the default setting is “on.”

Although there are no rules governing the use of this information, Facebook, which is estimated to have pictures and demographic information for more than 900 million users, has publicly stated multiple times that it will not allow any third-party access to its database. This includes the government, though it has cooperated with law enforcement officials in a limited manner, a company spokesman said at a July 18 Senate hearing on face-recognition technology concerns.

One proposal is for a comprehensive privacy law, similar to those in many European countries. This would provide for a “privacy commissioner” to deal with concerns raised by technological developments as well as basic rules such as a requirement to ask permission before using any pictures or videos.

“If companies take and use [my picture], that’s fine,” said Justin Brookman, director for consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Just tell me about it.”

In a 2011 report, the center urged Congress to employ a mix of legislation, industry self-regulation and privacy-enhancing technologies to create an overarching privacy policy. That policy would require companies to obtain informed consent before using the technology to identify people.

But Marcus Dunn, director of government relations at the Security Industry Association, said the technology is not advanced to the point where new legislation is needed, and new regulations could end up doing more harm than good.

Before then, he said, new, cheaper or less-invasive technology may supersede facial-recognition tools, so the government should proceed with caution.

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