Justice Friday looks at impact of facial recognition technology
Kathryn Marshall | Monday, September 19, 2016
In the world of Facebook, Instagram and other forms of photo-based social media, the social justice issue of facial recognition technology and an individual’s privacy is at hand, Saint Mary’s senior Kimberly Orlando said during last week’s Justice Friday event.
Orlando said she first became aware of the issue after reading about Download Festival — a music festival in the United Kingdom — where many attendees unknowingly had their faces scanned and cross-examined with the UK’s digital base and criminal records.
As she learned more about the issue, Orlando read about the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, Fla. — an event called the “Snooper Bowl” by some.
“They scanned everyone in attendance at that Super Bowl … and from that, 19 people were identified for very petty crimes,” Orlando said. “No one was arrested, nothing came of this, but people went insane when they found out this happened. There were mixed reviews as to whether fans knew they were under surveillance.”
Such events raise the question of how much consent should be required to use facial recognition technology, Orlando said.
The issue is becoming more and more prevalent as the technology gets increasingly accurate, she said, because the idea behind the technology is not super new. In fact, people have been playing around with computer recognition since the 1960s.
The Viola-Jones algorithm allowed this area of study to take off in the 2000s, Orlando said. The results of this algorithm and deviations of it are present in everyday examples, such as the tiny square that identifies a face when taking a picture through a digital camera.
“It’s a rough estimate of how computers will map a face by taking little points on your face. Supposedly these distances between points will be different on every person’s face,” she said. “With that, you can run an algorithm to give you a unique number based on the proportions of your face. … If you like crime shows, this is usually what you see when they have a face in their database and they take a sample image and try to compare the two. That’s basically what this algorithm tries to do.”
Since its development, the algorithm has been widely used. Now, Google has an algorithm that can identity you with 99.63 percent accuracy; Facebook is at 97.25 percent, and the U.S. government’s accuracy is somewhere between 50 percent and 85 percent, Orlando said.
The difference between the government, Facebook and Google stems from the data these entities are using, she added.
“Google and Facebook have a lot of images of us,” Orlando said. “Facebook has around 250 billion photos — as of a year ago — with 350 million more uploaded every day.”
Orlando said the U.S. government only has straight-on mug shots, while Facebook has photos from all directions, in different light settings, with odd shadows and across wide ranges of time. In this way, Facebook is provided with everything needed to match a random photo to a face.
“We only have a Fourth Amendment against search and seizure,” Orlando said. “If the U.S. government wants, they can ask Facebook to protect photos of you in order to make their facial recognition better.”
On a positive note, this technology can be used in helpful ways, Orlando said. Casinos can use it to track gambling addicts; companies such as Master Card, which develop credit cards, can use the face associated with each credit card number to limit fraud and track down criminals.
However, this technology could also mean law enforcement uses information and tagged photos from Facebook to issue warrants, Orlando said.
“And with the U.S. government, there are no laws that once they take the photos, they can’t keep them,” she said. “Those photos are in their database in case you do something again.”
Orlando said this technology isn’t just limited to high ranking citizens. It can be used by anyone — including two individuals in Russia who developed a mobile app called FindFace using information from a Facebook-like Russian social media site.
“FindFace lets you take a photo of a person passing by, checks it against the database and then you can discover that person’s real name,” Orlando said. “There were people who would try to find a girl’s name so they could ask her on a date … silly things like that, that could change into stalking.”
In the U.S., the big concern is the lack of federal laws regulating scans being taken of your face, Orlando said, although Illinois and Texas have laws against using this technology to identify people without their informed consent.
“Illinois is trying to lobby right now to change their existing law to make it so only in-person scans need consent,” she said. “So, Facebook wouldn’t apply anymore, Instagram wouldn’t apply anymore. … A lot of people are guessing Facebook is behind the lobbying because if this change were to happen, the person with the most to gain would be Facebook.”
In connection with this issue, someone sued Facebook and the case will be going to trial, Orlando said.
People need to be aware of the permissions they grant when agreeing to the fine print on app contracts, she added, and also need to be aware of this issue to consider if and how this technology violates a balance of security and liberty.