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FBI Face Recognition Concerns Privacy Advocates

by Rebecca Boxhorn, Consortium Research Associate, Former MJLST Staff & Editor

Thumbnail-Rebecca-Boxhorn.jpgHelen of Troy's face launched a thousand ships, but yours might provide probable cause. The FBI is developing a nationwide facial recognition database that has privacy experts fretting about the definition of privacy in a technologically advanced society. The $1 billion Next Generation Identification initiative seeks to harness the power of biometric data in the fight against crime. Part of the initiative is the creation of a facial photograph database that will allow officials to match pictures to mug shots, electronically identify suspects in crowds, or even find fugitives on Facebook. The use of biometrics in law enforcement is nothing new, of course. Fingerprint and DNA evidence have led to the successful incarceration of thousands. What privacy gurus worry about is the power of facial recognition technology and the potential destruction of anonymity.

Most facial recognition technology relies on the matching of "face prints" to reference photographs. Your face print is composed of as many as 80 measurements, including nose width, eye socket depth, and cheekbone shape. . Sophisticated computer software then matches images or video to a stored face print and any data accompanying that face print. Accuracy of facial recognition programs varies, from accuracy estimates as low as 61% to as high as 95%.

While facial recognition technology may prove useful for suspect identification, your face print could reveal much more than your identity to someone with a cell phone camera and a Wi-Fi connection. Researchers at Carnegie Melon University were able to link face print data to deeply personal information using the Internet: Facebook pages, dating profiles, even social security numbers! Although the FBI has assured the public that it only intends to include criminals in its nationwide database, this has not quieted concerns in the privacy community. Innocence before proof of guilt does not apply to the collection of biometrics. Police commonly collect fingerprints from arrestees, and California's Proposition 69 allows police to collect DNA samples from all people they arrest, no matter the charge, circumstances, or eventual guilt or innocence. With the legality of pre-conviction DNA collection largely unsettled, the legal implications of new facial recognition technology are anything but certain.

It is not difficult to understand, then, why facial recognition has captured the attention of the federal government, including Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. During a Judiciary Committee hearing in July, Senator Franken underscored the free speech and privacy implications of the national face print database. From cataloging political demonstration attendees to misidentifications, the specter of facial recognition technology has privacy organizations and Senator Franken concerned.

But is new facial recognition technology worth all the fuss? Instead of tin foil hats, should we don ski masks? The Internet is inundated with deeply private information voluntarily shared by individuals. Thousands of people log on to Patientslikeme.com to describe their diagnoses and symptoms; 23andme.com allows users to connect to previously unknown relatives based on shared genetic information. Advances in technology seem to be chipping away at traditional notions of privacy. Despite all of this sharing, however, many users find solace and protection in the anonymity of the Internet. The ability to hide your identity and, indeed, your face is a defining feature of the Internet and the utility and chaos it provides. But as Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky identify in their article "To Track or 'Do Not Track': Advancing Transparency and Individual Control in Online Behavioral Advertising," online advertising "fuels the majority of free content and services online" while amassing enormous amounts of data on users. Facial recognition technology only exacerbates concerns about Internet privacy by providing the opportunity to harvest user-generated data, provided under the guise of anonymity, to give faces to usernames.

Facial recognition technology undoubtedly provides law enforcement officers with a powerful crime-fighting tool. As with all new technology, it is easy to overstate the danger of governmental abuse. Despite FBI assurances to use facial recognition technology only to catch criminals, concerns regarding privacy and domestic spying persist. Need the average American fear the FBI's facial recognition initiative? Likely not. To be safe, however, it might be time to invest in those oversized sunglasses you have been pining after.