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Robert Longley

Facing the Facial Recognition Threat

By October 26, 2012

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Well, your face is familiar. Maybe a little too familiar in the case of the growing number of companies using facial recognition technology on consumers, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

One day in the not-too-distant future, 'Joe' walks into a mall and notices a big digital sign that recognizes him, greets him by name and shows him a list of sales at the stores where he usually shops. At one of those stores, Joe is trying out a new video game, when the screen flashes, "Hey, Joe, you don't look old enough to play this game," and shuts down. Has Joe been served and protected, or taken advantage of and violated?

That's what worries the FTC as it looks at the personal privacy and security issues involved with the growing use of facial recognition in a wide range of consumer contexts ranging from online social networks and mobile apps to digital signs.

"They have a number of potential uses, such as determining an individual's age range and gender in order to deliver targeted advertising; assessing viewers' emotions to see if they are engaged in a video game or a movie; or matching faces and identifying anonymous individuals in images," notes the FTC in a press release.

While this could help us, it could also hurt us, because as the FTC warns, facial recognition technology has the potential to identify and collect data about anonymous individuals in public without their knowledge or consent, and the data collected may be susceptible to security breaches and hacking.

But in its report, Facing Facts: Best Practices for Common Uses of Facial Recognition Technologies, the FTC finds the personal privacy horse may still be in the barn, because the commercial use of facial recognition technologies is still in its infancy.

"This creates a unique opportunity to ensure that as this industry grows, it does so in a way that respects the privacy interests of consumers while preserving the beneficial uses the technology has to offer," states the report.

In its report, the FTC recommends that companies using facial recognition technologies

  • design their services with consumer privacy in mind;
  • develop reasonable security protections for the information they collect, and sound methods for determining when to keep information and when to dispose of it; and
  • consider the sensitivity of information when developing their facial recognition products and services -- for example, digital signs using facial recognition technologies should not be set up in places where children congregate.

Also somewhat comforting is the fact that the FTC recommends that companies using facial recognition make sure consumers know it from the get-go and that the companies make it easy for consumers to prevent the technology from collecting data about them. "So, for example," the FTC suggests, "if a company is using digital signs to determine the demographic features of passersby, such as age or gender, they should provide clear notice to consumers that the technology is in use before consumers come into contact with the signs." Like, "If you do not want to be probed, turn back now."

Also See: Feds Could Better Protect Cell Users' Privacy: GAO

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