The privacy quandry

Facial recognition system showing a blue interface with a human head and biometrics data, with a grid of relevant points connected to facial features: used for survellaince, privacy control and identity tracking (Big Brother).

Facial recognition system showing a blue interface with a human head and biometrics data, with a grid of relevant points connected to facial features: used for survellaince, privacy control and identity tracking (Big Brother).  

The iPhone’s facial recognition software is great news for security but what does it portend for the future of privacy?

If an iPhone user unlocks the phone, on an average 80 times a day, as an Apple executive reportedly revealed to the media last April, it does make sense to make the process of unlocking a breeze without compromising on security. Touch ID, a fingerprint recognition feature introduced four years back, made punching in passcodes seem like a lot of work. Now, with Face ID, which Apple will introduce in its upcoming iPhone X as a replacement to Touch ID, you need to only glance at the phone to be able to access it. It is that easy.

It won’t be fooled by photos or masks of you, assures Apple. That’s because the technology relies on making a unique facial map by projecting 30,000 invisible dots onto your face. This pattern of dots is read by an infrared camera, which then sends the data to a secure part of the chip to make a match. The image never goes out of the device.

Apple is supremely confident when it says: “Put on glasses. Wear a hat. Grow a beard. Your friends might not recognise you. But iPhone X will.” That’s great news for security.

But before you are done heaving a sigh of relief, it triggers an eerie realisation too – what if all kinds of devices learn to recognise people? What would this mean for privacy? Face recognition technologies are becoming that mainstream.

Make no mistake. Such technologies have been around for some years now. But until very recently, they have been quite inconspicuous, in the service of useful tagging work inside Google’s Picasa, Apple’s iPhoto, and Facebook. They got some attention, though, in 2013 when Google said no to face recognition apps on its Glass.

Six years back (a long time in the world of technology), three researchers from Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University – Alessandro Acquisti, Ralph Gross, and Fred Stutzman – anticipated the privacy concerns that could get triggered by face recognition tools. Their study, ‘Faces of Facebook: Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality,’ investigated what happens when three technologies – face recognition, cloud computing, and online social networks – come together. They found that it was possible to, through a mobile app that they developed, to figure out someone’s personal data from their face in real time.

If the result makes you uneasy, it’s now six years later, and cameras and technologies have gotten better, the Internet is stocked with more and more personal information than ever, and the cloud is ubiquitous.

Benedict Evans, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, imagined in a blog earlier this year one of the second-order fallouts of autonomous vehicles: “Pretty much every vision of automatic cars involves them using HD, 360 degree computer vision. That means every AV will be watching everything that goes on around it – even the things that are not related to driving. An autonomous car is a moving panopticon.”

There aren’t easy solutions. As the Carnegie Mellon researchers noted, self-regulation isn’t going to work (their study used publicly available information). And, while people may even change their names, it is much harder to change someone’s face!

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 10:02:56 AM |

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