Facial Recognition: Should Permission be Required?

John Lister's picture

Plans to draw up guidelines for how firms use facial recognition technology have fallen apart after civil liberties groups withdrew from talks. They say businesses aren't making a serious offer at an acceptable compromise.

Businesses and consumer groups have been taking part in facial recognition guideline talks since early last year. They've been organized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a government agency. The idea behind the talks was to avoid the need to draw up and implement legislation, something that could be politically tricky.

The talks have covered a range of issues dealing with how companies store, use and share information they've gathered by using facial recognition, whether from photographs such as on social media sites, or from images captured by security cameras.

Facial Recognition Now Very Viable

The debate has become much more important in recent years because of the growth in computer processing power. While humans are hard-wired to recognize faces, it's a surprisingly difficult task for computers. That's because, while a computer can carry out tasks extremely quickly and meticulously, they aren't as good at humans at using instinct and intuition to take "shortcuts" when assessing imagery.

That's changed with both faster computers generally and the ability to use remote "cloud" processing that makes it much more efficient to access immense computing power only as and when its needed. It's now much more practical for a business to scan security footage and identify somebody on the spot. One company that works with casinos says each of its servers can check images at a rate of one million comparisons per second. (Source: bostonglobe.com)

Point Of Principle Divides Sides

Despite the lengthy discussions, it appears the process has collapsed over a central issue: whether or not organizations should have to get explicit consent before using a person's image for facial recognition with the purpose of identifying them by name.

Businesses argue that in some circumstances this simply isn't practical, for example when trying to identify a known shoplifter when they enter a store.

The consumer groups argue that getting permission in every case is a basic principle and the absolute minimum they could accept from any agreement. They note that Illinois and Texas already have laws to this effect.

The groups also say that the businesses refused to even agree to a compromise of requiring them to get permission in specific circumstances such as where security wasn't an issue. (Source: nytimes.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Are you concerned about companies being able to almost instantly identify people by their face using security camera footage? Should they have to get permission before doing so, or would this undermine security? Do you think this issue can be resolved through further talks and, if not, should legislators take action?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I see two things happening.

First, companies are probably already using facial facial recognition software and will most likely continue doing so regardless of any legislative talks.

Second, if the government is somehow able to enforce companies to seek permission to use facial recognition on its customers, I foresee companies doing something similar to a computer software EULA (end user license agreement). For example, they will likely post notices on the doors leading into the premises stating that (a) you are being recorded, and (b) the store is using facial recognition, and (c) if you enter the store, you hereby agree to the terms of service, which is (a) and (b).

matt_2058's picture

I don't have a problem with a business trying to identify shoplifters. In fact, I believe it is their right to protect their property. I even think it ok to use non-identifying data INTERNALLY for sales and marketing, like isle traffic.

What I find disturbing is the other uses beyond protecting their rights and property, and the involvement of third parties. Personal identification should require direct explicit permission, not a catch all "these premises are under video surveillance and you are being recorded". That is not permission to use a person's image or ID in marketing, ads, surveys, training materials, etc. Also, many times the third party consultant does not have adequate data protections in place. On top of that, a person has no agreement with that third party, so the third party is not restricted. What can an individual do when their data is stolen from the third party, if they are ever notified of the event? What are the consequences if a person's data is misused?

Show me a business that protects my info, does not involve third parties, and does not distribute my info and I will be a very loyal customer. What's irritating is a company sharing info 'within the family of businesses owned by xxx'. I have my auto insurance with company A. I don't want junk mail from B's investment company, C's credit card company, or D's multitude of endorsed businesses just because they are all owned by ABC Holding.

LouisianaJoe's picture

Click on an image on facebook. Some times it will ask if you want to tag an individual by name in the image. They are using facial recognition now.

That is why I always use my dog or some other object as my avatar on all sites and forums that I use. I also use incorrect data in required info.

gar.suitor_4798's picture

I don't believe there is any real expectation of privacy in a public place. We are constantly watched on security cameras virtually everywhere, and I don't have a real problem with that, so long as my face is not tied to my name or other personally identifiable information.

I think at the very least, public facilities should be required to post notice that facial recognition software will be used with images captured, giving the public the option not to patronize the facility.

There are seriously conflicting interests here, but I think my principal objection is use of data obtained to profile me, or target me for advertising. I think that aspect of technology has advanced much too far beyond what our laws are prepared to deal with.

I never tag anyone in photographs, and if I find I've been tagged, I ask the tagger to remove the tag. I keep my FB account locked down as tightly as I can. I am not interested in interaction with anyone except those I have accepted as friends, or who have accepted me as friends.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

zincRiver's picture

My concern is liability. If Tom claims he saw Dick shoplift a six-pack, there can be legal consequences for Tom if his claim turns out to be false. If it's a computer program making the claim, and Dick's reputation gets trashed, where is Dick's recourse? Can the store owner avoid all liability by simply saying, "Hey, the computer said so!"?

I want to see the law spell out very clearly who is on the hook for a false identification.

gbruce40_3626's picture

As a photographer, I have to abide with the Photographers rights as laid down by every state in the USA and Province in Canada, and these rights have existed, in many forms, for over 100 years. They are revised frequently as technology changes.

Now facial recognition has come along and big companies do not want to even make compromises. Why? Because there is big money to be made from having no restrictions. A good politician would step in and propose a privacy law to cover this problem. Unfortunately where can we find a good politician? the Lobbyists rule, and they are not on our side.

I am all for cameras for purposes of security, but as in the photographers rights, there must be limitations set to protect the innocent public. We only have to look at Google, Facebook and others to see how far our rights can be abused.

Posting a sign on a store window/door that gives notice that facial recognition software will be used with images captured, giving the public the option not to patronize the facility, will not work. How often do shoppers read signs like that amid all the other advertising. Fair restrictions must be written into law to be effective.

Chief's picture

I expect stores to have security cameras - its their store.
What I strenuously object to is when (and you know this will happen) the 3rd party companies take over the security cameras so as to track your movements (just like cookies) so as to sell your habits to others.

For an obvious example, watch the movie "Minority Report".

Just look at the mess we've gotten into with cities 'leasing' red light cameras.
Always follow the money.