Monday, February 3, 2014

When No One Is Just a Face in the Crowd

Launch media viewe
Hey, big spenders.
Facial recognition technology, already employed by some retail stores to spot and thwart shoplifters, may soon be used to identify and track the freest spenders in the aisles.
The NEC Corporation, for instance, is working on “V.I.P. identification” software, based on face recognition, for hotels and other businesses “where there is a need to identify the presence of important visitors.”
And companies like FaceFirst, in Camarillo, Calif., hope to soon complement their shoplifter-identification services with parallel programs to help retailers recognize customers eligible for special treatment.
“Just load existing photos of your known shoplifters, members of organized retail crime syndicates, persons of interest and your best customers into FaceFirst,” a marketing pitch on the company’s site explains. “Instantly, when a person in your FaceFirst database steps into one of your stores, you are sent an email, text or SMS alert that includes their picture and all biographical information of the known individual so you can take immediate and appropriate action.”
Joseph Rosenkrantz, the chief executive of FaceFirst, envisages stores using the software to recognize shoppers and immediately send personalized offers to their phones. But he expects retailers to seek permission from their customers first.
“That would require opt-in consent,” he told me recently.
The ability to surreptitiously offer some customers better treatment — and to link their faces and names with biographical profiles — is among the issues that technology industry experts and consumer advocates are likely to confront on Thursday, when they meet in Washington to discuss facial recognition. The event is the first of a series on the topic organized by theNational Telecommunications and Information Administration. Agency officials expect that participants will eventually hammer out a voluntary industry code of conduct for the technology’s use.
“Commercial facial recognition technology has the potential to provide important benefits and to support a new wave of technological innovation,” says John Verdi, the agency’s director of privacy initiatives, “but it also poses consumer privacy challenges.”
The meetings are part of an initiative, introduced in 2012 by the White House, to draft and enact baseline federal consumer privacy legislation. Last year, the telecommunications agency held similar forums about data collection by mobile apps. Participants eventually agreed to endorse notices that apps could display before they were downloaded, alerting users if an app collected material, like photos or contact lists, from their phones.
But facial recognition seems more fraught because, like DNA sequencing, it measures and records biological patterns unique to individuals. Like concerns over the proliferation of genetic data, the debate over facial recognition ultimately revolves around whether a person has a right to control who has access to his or her biometric data and how it can be used.
Because facial recognition can be used covertly to identify and track people by name at a distance, some civil liberties experts call it unequivocally intrusive. In view of intelligence documents made public by Edward J. Snowden, they also warn that once companies get access to such data, the government could, too. “This is you as an individual being monitored over time and your movements and habits being recorded,” says Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union. “That is a very scary technological reality.”
For the technology to work, a company or government agency must create a database containing photos or video stills of individuals. Next, a typical system extracts complex measurements — often topological — of each face. Then it converts each person’s facial data into a mathematical code, or “faceprint.” If security cameras record someone at, say, a store or a casino, the system can compare the faceprint of that live image to those in the database, taking only a few seconds to run through millions of faceprints and find a match.
Some international airports use the technology to identify employees as well as frequent fliers who have been cleared by government security services.  Facebook offers face-matching software, called “Tag Suggestions,” to automatically suggest to members the names of people in photos they’ve uploaded. Google said last year that it would not approve “at this time” apps for Google Glass that use facial recognition.
Now retailers and marketers are weighing the possible ramifications of facial recognition and the practices they may need to employ it securely and ethically.
Mr. Rosenkrantz of FaceFirst argues that its current shoplifter-recognition service is less intrusive than typical in-store video security systems. Video cameras capture everyone who walks into a store and the images are usually kept for 30 days, he says, whereas FaceFirst destroys faceprints of all consumers except those whom retailers have previously caught shoplifting.
“We purposely do not store information on people not being looked for,” he says.
Yet Joseph Atick, a pioneer in facial recognition, views the technology as much more powerful than current consumer-tracking tools. Taken in context with trends like the near ubiquity of cellphone cameras and the proliferation of people who are identified by name in online photos, he says, facial recognition may soon let companies link a person’s online persona with his or her actual offline self at a specific public location. That could seriously threaten our ability to remain anonymous in public.
“I don’t think there has ever been a capability that converged in this way to give people power over you,” Mr. Atick says.
Indeed, at the meeting on Thursday, industry and consumer advocates will have to contend with nascent facial-recognition apps like NameTag; it is designed to allow a user to scan photographs of strangers, then see information about them — like their occupations or social-network profiles.
But rather than react to the data-mining technique of the day, some regulators want Congress to pass a law giving consumers basic rights to control how intimate details about them are collected and used, no matter the technology.
Of facial recognition, Jessica Rich, the director of the bureau of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, says: “This is another reason that we need omnibus privacy legislation.”

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