Fingerprints, Faceprints, and Facebook Moments

As the fight on the USA PATRIOT Act was making headway, another was losing ground. On June 16, consumer watchdog and human rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as several others, gave up government talks to place regulations on facial recognition software that use your faceprint to identify you.

This is a big thing to do. Not very often do you hear of the ACLU and the EFF backing out of a fight. But after 16 months of fighting they have, “decided this week it was no longer an effective use of our resources to continue in a process where companies wouldn’t even agree to the most modest measures to protect privacy.”

Open the Flood Gates to Facial Recognition

Only a few days after the EFF and ACLU backed out of the talks, Facebook rolls out its latest upgrade to its convenient tagging feature, Moments. Moments is actually a separate sister app for mobile devices. It works by digging into your phone and grouping all of your images by ‘moments:’ the hike you went on, the night out on the town, etc. It then automatically tags all of your friends based on your Facebook profile and suggests for you to send the moment to all of your friends.

At this point the pictures are private, but each recipient then has the opportunity to post the pictures to Facebook.

The Moments app is meant to make life easier. No longer will you have to take the same picture on seven different phones, or tediously email snapshots to all the attendees in a big event. With its artificial intelligence, Facebook Moments can recognize your faceprint with 98% accuracy, and fast. Facebook claims that the Moment’s AI can pick out a single photo of you out of 800 million in just five seconds- and it doesn’t even need a full frontal image of you to do it.

Facebook’s facial recognition abilities has grown beyond just the face. According to this Wired article, their AI lab is working on an algorithm that can identify people by their hair, clothes, body shape, and more.

Proponents of this technology point to the ease of use available to consumers with the development of this kind of technology. Fortune magazine suggests,

Imagine, for instance, using nothing but your face to log-in to your computer, open your front door or control every sensor in your house.

Is Your Faceprint Yours?

One hole in the capabilities of Facebook Moments is that it can’t identify you, only recognize you from the use of another picture.

For identification you will need the FBI’s NGI biometric database. This has 14-million face images with plans to increase the number to 52 million by the end of this year.

When the government is involved, the Fourth Amendment does provide some protection. The supreme court has already ruled that if a fingerprint or DNA test is collected without due cause it can’t be used in court as evidence. This is due to the public’s general expectation of privacy. But will that precedent transfer to faceprints, especially when people freely post their faces, and other biometric data, online?

And what do those protections really mean when you have communities like San Diego with mobile biometric readers? Agencies ranging from the DEA, ICE, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, and the San Diego Unified School District all have access to the system. All that is required is the use of a Samsung tablet or Android mobile phone to take a picture of a person that law enforcement can run through databases of DMV images and mugshot photos across several jurisdictions- returning highly accurate results in less than eight seconds.

Time to Regulate on These Fools

The new technology is not for everyone. The tag feature, which so many Americans take for granted, is not even available in the European Union and Canada. Those places have found the technology intrusive so Facebook isn’t allowed to even turn it on.

Furthermore, Europe and two states, Illinois and Texas, require opt-in for commercial facial recognition system. This makes it all the more frustrating when companies participating in talks with the ACLU and EFF, “would not even agree that an opt-in system was appropriate in the most extreme scenario—where companies that a consumer has never heard of use face recognition to identify and track people walking down public streets.”

The precedent is there for the government to protect the public’s biometric data, or more specifically, your faceprint. Europe already has an opt-in system in place similar to the permissions you must agree to when installing a mobile app. So far, the European Union has also blocked the launch of the Moments app, mainly for its lack of an opt in system.

feature image: courtesy of Maraparacc


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