The debate over facial recognition software—which can involve identifying someone in a public place without his consent or knowledge—is intensifying. But stopping it might be as futile as trying to slow technological innovation itself.
A new report this week from the tech-research firm Tractica predicts that by 2024, there will be 122.8 million facial recognition devices and licenses sold annually, up from 28.5 million in 2015. The reason is clear: Such data is extremely profitable. The report says annual revenue from the technology—“including both visible light facial recognition and infrared-based thermography”—will reach $882.5 million by 2024, up from $149.5 million this year.
Facial recognition is a slice of biometrics, the use of unique, personal traits to identify someone. However, unlike fingerprint analysis, which has been around for more than a century, the subjects of facial recognition might not know they’re on candid camera, much less being identified in a public place where they had expected anonymity.
Law enforcement is keenly interested in facial recognition, for its benefits in catching wanted criminals. In that sphere, a fugitive whose image is caught on a security camera could be compared with a database of known convicts, and a match might be made in seconds. But corporations and advertisers have an interest in knowing where a person is at a given time. Imagine walking into a store, and a clerk instantly knows not only who you are but what you might be interested in buying, based on your electronic history.
Churches are even using software called Churchix to check up on their parishioners and make sure they’re coming to services.
Privacy advocates are understandably alarmed at the rise in facial recognition, but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere in trying to convince software companies that the public has even a semblance of privacy protection while out and about. Earlier this month, nine privacy advocates dropped out of a series of “multi-stakeholder” meetings about the issue in Washington, D.C. The negotiations had been hosted by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration, and also involved trade associations representing tech companies.
The stakeholders were trying to come to agreement on industry codes of conduct governing facial recognition, absent any federal law regulating the practice. The privacy groups wanted the companies to agree to allow facial recognition only if the user—the person in the photo—agreed to it. None would commit.
“This is a pretty remarkable opposition to a core privacy concept that’s already in state laws on this issue,” Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Law, told The Washington Post after attending the most recent meeting.
Illinois and Texas have laws requiring a user’s consent before a facial recognition match can be made. A class action lawsuit was filed in Illinois against Facebook by citizens who say the social-media giant’s photo-matching “Tag Suggestions” feature violated the state privacy law.
If Facebook is quaking in fear about the lawsuit, it’s not letting on. In fact, it’s taking facial recognition to a brave new world: Facebook’s app Moments scans your phone for photos of your friends and acquaintances, then shares them with the owners of those faces, if they’ve also got the app. If they don’t have the app yet, they get notified that they have “photos waiting for them in the app.”
Facebook isn’t making the app available in Europe, however, because it’s afraid of running afoul of regulators there. Meanwhile, some people have found ways to trip up the software using fashion—unique hairstyles, makeup and clothing.