Facebook was widely criticized this summer after launching a feature that automatically identified and tagged users as they uploaded photos online. Google avoided public backlash after introducing a similar feature earlier this month by letting users decide for themselves if they wanted to participate. As Evgeny Morozov describes in his “Future Tense” column today, this “opt-in” approach is savvy on social networks’ part, but the comfort consumers receive from opt-in policies is false:
While it's certainly less coercive, any opt-in still makes the underlying technology—automated facial recognition, in this case—seem normal and acceptable. But no technology companies will acknowledge this.
And facial recognition isn’t just for social networks. It is moving into the physical world, where opting in or out is much more complicated, if not entirely impractical.
As of yet, facial recognition in real-time isn’t quite ready for prime time. The technology in commercial use today can mostly only detect faces rather than identify them. Basically, a camera can tell when a face comes into view, but it can’t attach a name or any other traceable data to that face. It can, however, determine general characteristics of a person in view, including gender, age group, and, in some cases, emotion.
Intel’s AIM Suite software is used in digital signs to tailor advertisements to passers-by—when someone identified as a woman in her 20s walks by, say, she’ll be confronted with a mascara ad, while a man in his 50s may be served a spot for a wristwatch. The program has other uses, too: Bars and nightclubs use a social networking company called SceneTap, which is powered by AIM Suite, to track the number of people, the male-to-female ratio, and the average age by gender. Users can use SceneTap’s smartphone app to decide which bar to visit on a night out.
Designing an opt-out for the physical world is difficult. A camera in a physical location is going to capture people as they pass by no matter what. Panelists at the FTC’s workshop tossed around some ideas to deal with this, but all suggestions were problematic and superficial.
Companies using it say they’re acutely aware of personal privacy concerns. They generally recognize that a system that identifies and tracks people requires notice and consent, but at this point their policies are based on self-regulation. Ultimately, facial recognition technology has the potential to create new and useful services, but the perception of privacy invasion is a threat. If services aren’t perfectly clear about what they’re doing, as we saw with Facebook, customers and policymakers will turn against them.
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