Facial Recognition is a Threat to Your Privacy

A Top Privacy Issue of Our Time

Imagine you’re walking down the street and a stranger snaps your photo with his smartphone. He uses a facial recognition app and within minutes, he knows your name, age, where you were born, and your Social Security number. Think it’s a scene from the movie Minority Report? Think again.


It’s Possible

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University combined three technologies – facial recognition software, cloud computing, and social networks – to identify people both online and offline. The team performed three separate experiments:

  1. People using pseudonyms on an online dating site were identified by comparing Facebook profile photos, which are publicly displayed, to the profiles on the dating site. Using facial recognition software to match up the photos, 10 percent of the dating site’s users were identified.

  2. Students walking on campus were identified by comparing real-time photos taken with a webcam to Facebook profile photos. The facial recognition software identified the students 31 percent of the time.

  3. Using only a photo of a person’s face and information publicly available online, the researchers figured out the person’s birth date, personal interests, and Social Security number.

Many individuals share a tremendous amount of information about themselves online. As facial recognition software improves, it will inevitably be easier to link this personal information to you just by taking your photo.


The Threat to Your Privacy

Facial recognition technology – especially as the technology becomes more sophisticated – may be one of the gravest privacy threats of our time. It has the potential to remove the anonymity we expect in crowds and most public places. There are the obvious “chilling effects” it could have on political demonstrations and speech, concerns being monitored by civil liberties advocates like the ACLU, EPIC, and EFF.  However, this technology will also very likely be used in greater capacity in the commercial sector to further target consumers for advertising and discriminatory pricing purposes.


According to an article published recently by the Los Angeles Times, several companies have already launched, or plan to launch soon, facial recognition technology that will be used for in-store digital displays and kiosks to make product suggestions based on the demographics gleaned from your face.  This might include your sex, your age range, and your race or ethnicity.  


However, the article fails to mention the possibility that facial recognition software will likely be used for more than demographic targeting. In his book Niche Envy, Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explains how companies are using increasingly sophisticated market segmentation methods to offer different prices to different people, a practice known as price discrimination. The more detailed the profile a company can build on you, the more accurately it can estimate how much you are willing to spend on a product.


Professor Turow focused primarily on online data collection, but as the Carnegie Mellon study illustrates, facial recognition technology makes it possible to connect your offline identity with your online identity without necessarily obtaining your consent. As facial recognition technology advances and the number of consumers using social media continues to increase, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where you walk into a store and are treated differently or even see different prices based on the combination of your biometric data and personal information publicly available online. 


A further concern is the unwanted identification of individuals with sensitive circumstances, such as victims of domestic violence, stalking victims and law enforcement officers.


What You Can Do

We believe  individuals must have control over their personal information.  This includes who has your information, how it is kept, and what can be done with it.  Facial recognition software can enable companies to identify and target you without your knowledge or permission. Privacy laws in the U.S. have not kept pace with technology, and we are aware of no laws specifically governing commercial use of facial recognition technology.  This is unless, of course, a company states in a privacy policy that it does not use this technology when in fact it does.

Here are three things you can do to fight for your privacy:

  1. Educate yourself. The most important thing you can do is learn more about the technology and its privacy implications, so that you are an educated and informed consumer.

  2. Support legislation that defends privacy. Write to your elected representatives to ask for stronger privacy protections against facial recognition technology and other emergent technologies that you believe may be used to invade your privacy. Many privacy laws are created on the state level, so stay informed and vote for better privacy protection.

  3. Avoid companies with poor privacy practices. When possible, don't do business with companies that you believe collect unnecessary personal information or fail to protect that information. Take your money elsewhere - and let the companies know why.