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Here’s Looking at You, Kid:  Facial Recognition and Your Privacy

August 13, 2017

Research indicates that social media behavior has a strong impact on the brain, from impulse control, to depression and self-esteem. Sharing photos of yourself with friends and family and getting likes or shares can be hard to resist. But did you know that facial recognition technology, like that used by social media companies, can also become a privacy and safety concern?

Facial recognition is a form of biometric technology: a way of identifying a person by unique physical characteristics. Some mobile devices already can use facial recognition as a passcode for access protection. Social media sites such as Facebook use the technology to identify and tag people in photos. Many law enforcement agencies use facial recognition to match security camera footage or other images against driver license and other photo databases to identify suspects. And according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a few U.S. airports, cities, and sports venues are now using cameras to photograph people passing by and compare their faces against databases of known or suspected offenders. In the future, business experts say that retailers may also use facial recognition to deliver personalized advertising and services.

There are several potential issues with facial recognition technology. First, it’s not 100 percent accurate. Researchers have shown that mobile devices using facial recognition can be tricked using a photograph, and the ACLU notes that several government agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), have abandoned the technology because it didn’t work as expected.

Second, it could be used by bad guys to target you. For example, a new mobile face recognition app launching in Russia allows users to photograph people and find them on social networks. The inventors say it will revolutionize dating, but the UK’s Guardian newspaper says it has already been used to harass people.

Third, there are very few legal protections on how social media and other businesses can use photos of people. Only Illinois and Texas currently have privacy laws about the use of biometric data. So in most states for example, there’s no law stopping a social media company from renting out your image to something like that Russian dating app.

While we’re still a long way from some Orwellian future where facial recognition is used to track our every move, it’s still worth taking steps to protect yourself. Most important, review your privacy settings on social media, and wherever possible, adjust your settings so you must approve any post that you are tagged in before it posts. Don’t post photos of other people without permission, and ask your family and friends to do the same for you. (The snappy name for this is a “DUWOP” policy: Don’t Upload Without Permission.) Also, be extra wary when strangers approach you, because facial recognition is making it easier for scammers to try to fool you using personal information. Finally, support laws regulating biometric information because, as facial recognition is increasingly used for security and other purposes, your face will become another key to your identity and your privacy.

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