Face recognition pioneer now worried tech will be used for mass surveillance

Do you ever feel like you can be "invisible" when you are just one among a sea of faces? That's likely not very true, unless you wear a mask ... and you surely aren't very "invisible" then. Irony alert: Dr. Joseph Atick was described as “one of the pioneer entrepreneurs of modern face recognition” before the New York Times explained that Atick is now worried about face-matching biometrics enabling “mass surveillance” and “basically robbing everyone of their anonymity.”

Defeating face-matching biometrics

He is reportedly not concerned about the government openly using facial recognition such as to combat identity theft or fraud. There's no mention of the FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometric database, which will reportedly hold 52 million face images by 2015.

Rather, what troubles him is the potential exploitation of face recognition to identify ordinary and unwitting citizens as they go about their lives in public. Online, we are all tracked. But to Dr. Atick, the street remains a haven, and he frets that he may have abetted a technology that could upend the social order. 

Atick used the NameTag app as an example of face-matching technology being taken too far. The app offered Google Glass users “real-time facial recognition” by matching a stranger with everything about them that can be mined through social media such as their name, occupation and even real-time access to their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.

NameTag’s creator claimed, “It’s not about invading anyone’s privacy; it’s about connecting people that want to be connected.” There were plans to scan profile photos from OkCupid, Match.com and PlentyOfFish so users could make sure their date wasn’t one of the “more than 450,000 entries in the National Sex Offender Registry and other criminal databases.”

“We are basically allowing our fellow citizens to surveil us,” Atick said of the app. He is also concerned about what Google and Facebook will do with facial recognition if special safeguards aren’t put into place. Conveniently after making “tens of millions of dollars” off his biometric endeavors, Dr. Atick now thinks the industry has to “step up” and “accept responsibility” before there are “unexpected apps and consequences.”

The New York Times then looked FST Biometrics. The company has done away with keys, cards and codes, replacing those with a biometric system that uses face and motion recognition to determine who can enter Knickerbocker Village, an apartment complex Lower Manhattan, and at Taino Towers in New York. At the Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles, an FST system is used for security and for “better discipline” such as not allowing a tardy student to enter the building.

Aharon Farkash, the chief executive of FST, told the New York Times, “Your face, your behavior, your biometrics are the key.” Farkash hopes citizens will agree to face recognition deployed at banks, schools and medical facilities. “If all the ‘the good guys’ were to volunteer to be faceprinted, he theorizes, ‘the bad guys’ would stand out as obvious outliers. Mass public surveillance, Mr. Farkash argues, should make us all safer.”

That is darn close to the "nothing to hide" argument, except for faces. It seems to imply that you can't be a "good" guy or gal if you were to refuse being faceprinted.

FST’s “technology fusion” solutions go beyond reading faces and behaviors to reading license plates. For government facilities, FST recommends its “ability to begin the security process at the parking lot, identifying both drivers and license plates.” The “standard system uses passive face, speech and speaker recognition,” but “other biometrics such as RFID, fingerprints and iris” can also be added.

Yet the Times pointed out, “The fundamental concern about faceprinting is the possibility that it would be used to covertly identify a live person by name — and then serve as the link that would connect them, without their awareness or permission, to intimate details available online, like their home addresses, dating preferences, employment histories and religious beliefs. It’s not a hypothetical risk.”

After looking at two different schools of thought, those that don’t want to see facial recognition regulated as it might inhibit innovation and those worried the technology will adversely affect civil liberties and privacy, the New York Times came back to Dr. Atick. His is supposedly the “middle view,” claiming:

To maintain the status quo around public anonymity, he says, companies should take a number of steps: They should post public notices where they use face recognition; seek permission from a consumer before collecting a faceprint with a unique, repeatable identifier like a name or code number; and use faceprints only for the specific purpose for which they have received permission. Those steps, he says, would inhibit sites, stores, apps and appliances from covertly linking a person in the real world with their multiple online personas. 

This week the U.S. Commerce Department will start working on a “voluntary code of conduct” that will probably end up being as utterly useless as telling websites you do not want to be tracked. Letting big names like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Disney and Amazon refuse to discuss what face recognition applications they are creating while they decide on protecting our privacy was previously dubbed "a shameful proceeding." As it stands right now, it seems like the days of becoming "invisible" in a crowd, just one among a sea of faces, may well be numbered.

FREE Computerworld Insider Guide: Five IT certifications that won’t break you
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies