Week 12 – Facial Recognition Software, Algorithms, and Espionage

In the article “Public faces? A critical exploration of the diffusion of face recognition technologies in online social networks,” Norval and Prasopoulou explore the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) and it’s implications for American society. Facial recognition software is diffusing into everyday life, and is not longer limited to a select few. The idea of privacy in public spaces is complicated. We want to be able to walk down the street freely, but don’t want the government to watch us and know who we are. We show our face to the public, yet your face is an intimate, personal part of you. Today, we don’t just show or face to public spaces, but also to online spaces, meaning that information can be stored.

In class last week, someone mentioned that snapchat has the potential to build a facial recognition database. Millions of users engage with their filters every day, and we consider it a fun and benign thing to do. Once you see your friend use the dog filter, you immediately do the same, without thinking of the wider context or potential security threat.  There are a few articles on the internet discussing the conspiracy theory that snapchat is secretly building a database. Snapchat claims their software is not facial recognition, but object recognition. The features can identify noses and eyes, but it can’t identify your nose and eyes. They say the software definitely does not store any information about your face. They also include in their privacy policy that they don’t share data with any third party. Although I don’t believe snapchat is building a database, the point is that a private corporation has the resources to build one. Features such as the snapchat filter are so normal today, that their users don’t stop and think about it before using it regularly.

It is not just private corporations that are of concern. The FBI has admitted to using drivers license and passport photos to build a database for law enforcement purposes. The Bureau worked with 18 states so they could gain access to the photos, but the citizens were not informed that their photographs were shared. Not only was that unethical, there are some systematic issues. The algorithm the FBI uses is not as advanced as those used in commercial industries, and it is inaccurate 15% of the time. The software misidentifies minorities at a greater rate than whites. The program is also subject to no regulation or oversight by Congress, and the citizens have little to no awareness it exists. The FBI defends the system by saying it is similar to a fingerprint, and simply automates a process the FBI has always done.

There are many significant implications to the use of facial recognition software by the government.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a state under constant surveillance as a free state. Yet that is where the technology is headed in the United States. Of course, the use of this software increases law enforcements ability to recognize criminals and terrorists, possibly creating a safer world. However, from my point of view, it is not snapchat nor the government that I am afraid of obtaining these databases and algorithms. I believe the biggest threat is an espionage attack.

Any information that is online, compiled and organized, can be broken into. The true threat is if this information falls into the wrong hands. The government and companies who compile this information must ensure they are investing in the proper security for these databases. In addition, privacy policies must be clear because nothing stops companies from selling user data to data brokers or other companies. Thankfully, privacy policies are currently under scrutiny. Yet, we know that we can forget certain events just as fast as we paid attention to them. The conversation must continue because as new technology and practices emerge, the privacy threat increases.



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