Facial Recognition Technology Raising Privacy Concerns

The Federal Trade Commission is seeking public comments on the issues raised at a recent FTC workshop exploring facial recognition technology and the privacy and security implications raised by its increasing use. The December 8, 2011, public workshop, “Face Facts: A Forum on Facial Recognition Technology,” focused on the current and future commercial applications of facial detection and recognition technologies, and discussed current uses of these technologies, possible future uses and benefits. Now the focus shifts to the potential harms, namely the numerous potential privacy and security concerns.

Facial detection and recognition technologies have been adopted in a variety of new contexts, ranging from  online social networks to automobiles to Automatic Teller Machines and must more. Indeed, there are a variety of facial recognition innovations already patented and many with patent pending status.  A search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office database for the term “facial recognition” within the Abstract of an issued patent or published patent application returns 181 results.

As I read through the patents and patent applications discussed below, and the many more I did not include, I started to wonder whether anyone has any reasonable expectation of privacy at all any more.  I am a big fan of the CBS drama Person of Interest, and the surveillance system from that show that ferrets out dangerous on both macro and micro levels doesn’t seem quite so far fetched.  I suppose that is why the FTC is seeking comments on facial recognition technologies and the government is attempting to get its hands around the enormous issues and promulgate some rules or guidelines.

Without trying to be exhaustive, here is a sampling of some of the facial recognition technologies the United States Patent and Trademark Office has seen to date.  The breadth and scope of applications will likely take those who cherish personal privacy by surprise.

1. Facial based image organization and retrieval method
U.S. Patent No. 7,916,976

This invention relates to a system and set of processes for organizing image collections. The system detects individuals in each image uploaded into the system using facial recognition or similar methods. The user and viewers of the images may then view dynamic albums based on the interrelationships of individuals in images. Users and viewers may browse all images with an individual or see albums of images with two selected individuals or similar combinations based on the relationships between users.

This innovation seems similar to what Facebook now offers, which when implemented caught me by surprise and seemed a little too intrusive for my liking.

2. Event matching in social networks
U.S. Patent Application No. 20110211737

This Microsoft patent application relates to an innovation where images from two image databases may be correlated based on identifying a common event, which may be determined by image metadata as well as image content. The image metadata can include timestamps, geotagging metadata, or other tags, as well as input from a social network application in some embodiments. The image content may also include analysis to find common persons based on facial recognition or color histograms, common background components, or other common features. The common event may be used to identify images that may be shared among the participants of the event by a social network application, as well as other purposes.

It is no doubt it is the “as well as other purposes” that will give privacy advocates pause.  Like so many of these technologies on this list and within the walls of the USPTO you can understand why this would be useful, even desirable, for those who create or assemble content online.

3. Facial Recognition in groups
U.S. Patent Application No. 20070174272

This IBM patent application relates to a system for group facial recognition that includes a target extractor for extracting target images from a scene image; a target image classifier for comparing a target image to a database of known identities and allocating classification scores for identities; a relationship database providing relationship scores between known identities; and means for applying the relationship scores to the classification scores to improve classification of a target image.

The usefulness of this type of invention is almost certainly obviously apparent.  For among other things it would be wonderful for law enforcement to be able to rely on high speed facial recognition technology to scan a group to identify whether known terrorists are present.  Of course, there are any number of potential uses that should scare the pants right off you!  Can you imagine a technology like this falling into the hands of a totalitarian regime?

4. Facial-recognition vehicle security system
U.S. Patent No. 7,602,947

This patent relates to a movable-vehicle security system that includes  facial-recognition technology.  The invention relies upon a scanner, such as a infrared camera, directed at the face of a person in the driver’s seat.  The scanner produces output control signals that are applied to enable or disable operation of the vehicle, with or without a key. In one particular embodiment, the system includes a camera mounted below the roof and inside the rear window, directed at the rear-view mirror, and coupled to a facial-recognition computer, which in turn is coupled to an enabling element for the vehicle, such as a starter motor.

This type of innovation, which deals with security and enabling a vehicle only for the intended driver, seems less objectionable, at least at first.  But the thought of having a camera on focusing on you in your car could be a little unnerving to some, perhaps many.  Also, would the bank that lent you money to purchase the car be able to turn off your access to the car for failure to make a payment?  These and other questions will need to be answered as facial recognition technology continues to proliferate.

5. System and method for performing rapid facial recognition
U.S. Patent Application No. 20100239130

As facial recognition technology continues to take hold it will only get faster and faster, making it more useful in far more contexts.  This invention is an example of the need for speed in order to make facial recognition technologies more useful.   Distributed facial recognition is performed by multiple feature recognition modules that are interconnected and scattered on the network, hence can greatly increase the recognition speed and decrease the requirements in hardware specification. Moreover, the recognition accuracy is further increased by employing an identification module to identify the recognition results.

The invention begins it work when the image capture device captures a facial image.   The feature extraction module extracts features of the facial image to generate a set of feature data that is broadcasted to the response recognition computing units. The feature recognition modules then perform distributed facial recognition for generating recognition results as a response. The identification module identifies the recognition results to accomplish the recognition of an individual’s identity.

6. Remote and digital data transmission and satellite location…
U.S. Patent Application No. 20100177193

This invention utilizes urban surveillance cameras for facial recognition.  A photograph is taken and sent to the command center by means of a data link in real time.  The photograph is sent to a global module which transmits it to a security filter for its analysis and once the information is confirmed it sends it back to the module, and from here it is sent to the individuals identification module.  The system edits the photograph with all data acquired from an associated series of microphones.  By coupling the photographs with sounds the system can recognize the sound signatures of such things as gunshots.

Again, the utility for this invention is clear.  If you read the patent it explains that the goal is to assist with data collection for security personnel investigating kidnappings, for example.  But with that amount of data collected and the transmission of data one has to be a little nervous.  Can you imagine those who might want to tap into such data?

7. ATM with facial recognition features
U.S. Patent Application No. 20050167482

This invention relates to a self-service automated transaction machine that permits an authorized user to perform transactions therewith based on facial recognition. The machine includes one or more cameras from which one or more facial images are captured and which in turn are used in determining whether to grant machine access to an individual adjacent the machine. The machine may also include biometric type reading devices which are capable of reading a physical feature associated with a merchant user. These may include for example fingerprint readers, retina scanners, iris scanners, voice recognition features or combinations of any of the above.

To further the Commission’s understanding of the privacy issues inherent in the use of facial recognition technology, the Federal Trade Commission seeks public comments on the various issues, including but not limited to:

  • What are the current and future commercial uses of these technologies?
  • How can consumers benefit from the use of these technologies?
  • What are the privacy and security concerns surrounding the adoption of these technologies, and how do they vary depending on how the technologies are implemented?
  • Are there special considerations that should be given for the use of these technologies on or by populations that may be particularly vulnerable, such as children?
  • What are best practices for providing consumers with notice and choice regarding the use of these technologies?
  • Are there situations where notice and choice are not necessary? By contrast, are there contexts or places where these technologies should not be deployed, even with notice and choice?
  • Is notice and choice the best framework for dealing with the privacy concerns surrounding these technologies, or would other solutions be a better fit? If so, what are they?
  • What are best practices for developing and deploying these technologies in a way that protects consumer privacy?

Because all comments will be made publicly available on the FTC website, you should not include any trade secrets, confidential information, or sensitive personal information.

Public comments can be filed in electronic form by using this FTC form or in paper. Paper comments should refer to “Face Facts: A Forum on Facial Recognition — Project Number P115406? and include this reference both in the text and on the envelope. They should be mailed or delivered to the Federal Trade Commission at the following address: 600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Room H-113 (Annex P), Washington, DC 20580.

The FTC is requesting that comments filed in paper form be sent by courier or overnight service, if possible, because U.S. postal mail in the Washington, DC area and at the Commission is subject to delay due to heightened security precautions.

The deadline for filing comments is January 31, 2012.

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