Facial Recognition Technology – The End of Corporeal Privacy?

by Mike Wendy on July 13, 2011

I do not consent to this invasion of privacy.

From “Device Raises Fear of Facial Profiling” in the Wall Street Journal today:

Dozens of law-enforcement agencies from Massachusetts to Arizona are preparing to outfit their forces with controversial hand-held facial-recognition devices as soon as September, raising significant questions about privacy and civil liberties.

With the device, which attaches to an iPhone, an officer can snap a picture of a face from up to five feet away, or scan a person’s irises from up to six inches away, and do an immediate search to see if there is a match with a database of people with criminal records. The gadget also collects fingerprints.

This is yet another example of the TSA-like compromise to our liberties many seemingly accept especially since 9-11.  Public officials should reject the use of this technology.  It will be employed in untoward ways.

As Bill Johnson, Executive Director of the National Association of Police Organizations, notes:

“Even technically if some law says you can do it, it is not worth it—it is just not the right thing to do,” Mr. Johnson says, adding that developing guidelines for use of the technology is “a moral responsibility.”

Of course, the private sector has a role in this, too.  “Free” services like Facebook already employ similar face recognition services for its users.  Rights against how this is employed by private parties remain unclear.

In a practical sense, anytime someone takes a picture of you and posts it online, maintaining searchable, corporeal privacy has been lost forever – it goes well beyond simply consenting on one’s own to supply personally identifiable information (PII) to a web service, Internet provider, grocery store or other entity.

Not only will this private treasure trove of data prove irresistible to government officials, lawyers and others seeking to sue, find or prove “truths” in a rich variety of circumstances will actively seek this data, too (as they already do for PII).

Google’s Eric Schmidt says he is very concerned about the technology.  He surmises that “in free societies, it will be regulated.”

You bet it will.  Even if you’re off the grid, you can still be on it.

All this noted, the libertarian in me is very uncomfortable with this technology-enabled situation. It presents a slippery slope of opportunities to interject laws and regulations to “protect” private individuals from its potential abuse.  At the same time, however, can the evolution of technology, consumer awareness and choice, reputation management, industry best practices, marketplace guidance and present enforcement tools ensure that abuses are mitigated or do not occur?

Who knows?

The use of facial recognition technology may be a game changer in the way we address privacy here in America.

More to come…

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