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Facial Recognition Technologies: Beneficial, But Scary?

Brian Brackeen is an evangelist for facial recognition technology. The CEO of Kairos paints multiple scenarios in which the cutting edge technology can be used to benefit people. His best example: an unconscious patient is brought into a hospital. Using facial recognition technology, the patient is identified and his medical records are accessed, including such vital information as blood type and allergies to drugs.

Alex Kilpatrick, CEO and co-founder of BeehiveID, also points to the medical field, saying the technology can be used to keep people out of hospital wards where they don’t belong.

Both men were recent members of a panel discussion at the Privacy Identity Innovation 2014 (pii2014) conference held in Palo Alto, Calif.

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But the technology that can be used to help us also has a troubling side. A store in Hong Kong is using facial recognition technology to identify customers as they walk into the shop. The customers are greeted by name — a nice touch for good customer service. But technology that can point a camera at you and provide your name can also provide your purchase history, your annual income (if you applied for a store credit card) and all kinds of information that you wouldn’t typically want a sales clerk to know.

Consumers already squeamish over big data breaches at retailers and banks have reason to be concerned about adding facial recognition into the mix.

Should you have the right to privacy of your own face? Or should we all be subject to facial recognition unless we opt-out, and how and when would that happen?

Bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. are struggling with those issues right now. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, is attempting to come up with “a voluntary, enforceable code of conduct that specifies how the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights applies to facial recognition technology in the commercial context.” Voluntary.

How good is facial recognition? Olga Raskin is Identity Research Manager at IBG, who also was a pii panelist. She described sophisticated algorithms that can’t be thwarted by disguises. You can grow your hair long, cut it short, bleach it blond, shave your head or cover it with a hat—no matter, the computer can still identify you. As long as the camera can find your eyes, you will be identified.

Facebook introduced photo tagging recommendations in 2010 using facial recognition technology. Some users were thrilled by the changes, but others balked. You have the option to opt-out. Google+ uses similar technology.

While Raskin cited the power of facial recognition technology, she also said that it has limitations. She made a point of saying that the technology cannot search across the internet. You need not worry about Facebook drawing in old, embarrassing high school yearbook photos from a reunion site. At least, not yet.

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