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The Creepier Side of Facial Recognition Technology

October 30th, 2019   ||    by Brooke Phillips

Halloween may be upon us, but scary monsters aside, there are plenty of other ways big tech and big data should have you a little freaked out.

In the 2002 sci-fi movie “Minority Report” everyday citizens voluntarily submit to creepy, crawling robots who administer retina scans, as they walk through city streets, prepare dinner at home, and especially, when they enter stores and see specific advertising customized to their own preferences. And, in 1987’s Robocop – set in an indeterminate near future – law enforcement scans massive photo databases to identify and track down criminals. At their respective times of release, both of these movies – and the many other sci-fi films that have followed – offered a look at a technology-driven, quasi-dystopian society that still seemed, more or less, like a reality that was far off in a distant future.

But those technologies, while not necessarily applied in those exact ways, are now pretty commonplace. Facial recognition technology and its myriad uses are on the rise and consumers are sometimes aware they’re participating in it (e.g. signing up for the biometrics-based airport security Clear program), but more often, their images/photographs are being scanned and used without their knowledge or consent. And smart TVs (by Apple, Samsung, Panasonic etc.), embedded with facial recognition technology have been on the market for years.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

Microsoft and Facebook have both recently come under legal as well as consumer scrutiny about the vast personal data sets – which includes photographs and related imagery – they have each amassed from users and how they are using this data.

In the case of Facebook, the social media giant’s facial recognition technology had, for years, allowed users to see photo tag suggestions of their friends and then tag those friends in photos without their permission – or at least until savvier users proactively changed their settings to not allow. After being hit with a $5 billion fine, Facebook recently changed this policy to basically say that users now have to turn on their facial recognition setting if they want to be tagged in photos. It also goes on to say, that yes, if you turn on the facial recognition setting, Facebook will “analyze the photos and videos we think you’re in on Facebook, such as your profile picture and photos and videos that you’ve been tagged in, to make a unique number for you, called a template.” They then promise not to share your “template” with anyone. Uh huh, suuure. Or, if you’re really into being watched, go ahead and try Facebook’s latest smart display, “Portal” which basically enables you to make video calls and have the camera follow you around the room using facial recognition and tracking modes. Sorta like Facetime, but creepier.

However, not everyone minds sharing their personal “template.” Other cultures (than the West) display different behaviors and beliefs around data and privacy. Take China, for instance. The communist country’s largest tech company, Huawei, has been using its facial reconfirmation technology to allow subway passengers to have their faces scanned for payment. The Chinese government also regularly uses large surveillance systems to build out their data base of citizens’ faces, ages, genders, etc., and then uses the data to identify everyone from hardened criminals to jaywalkers. Presumably the result of generations of communist living and culture, if not perhaps, outright fear, but we don’t hear much outcry over loss of privacy or the continual state of surveillance in China.

Land of the Free…and Surveilled?

Back here in the U.S., privacy concerns and the numerous ways facial recognition can be adversely applied to profile people of color or other minority groups, or mistakenly identify entire groups of people, has resulted in cries for some form of government regulation and oversight. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders recently called for a total ban on facial recognition technology for use in policing. Many of the other Democratic presidential candidates also support some form of guidelines, protections or regulations.

On the opposing side, are the tech companies themselves, surveillance firms and other security entities who stand to financially benefit from the ability to seamlessly collect and monitor data on consumer/citizens. In the meantime, some states have addressed the issue directly. Illinois, Washington and Texas have passed privacy laws that restrict how some companies collect biometric data.

All of this incredibly powerful personal data is in the hands of a few humongous entities that are, currently, subject to zero regulation. Whether it’s the very real complexities that arise from facial recognition or its “hands-off” stance regarding politic advertising and the role of free speech, Facebook, especially, has engineered its way to the center of our political lives and questions about the very nature of truth, freedom and privacy.

The Not So Scary Side

You know one area of the media universe that remains trusted and not so scary? Local broadcast TV. Advertisers, brands, and consumers alike recognize that this relatively overlooked market is still sometimes undervalued. The local broadcast markets offers buyers vast inventory at scale to a viewership that still trusts the medium of broadcast TV. And, in this day and age, there’s something to be said for trusted, straightforward advertising and the channels that deliver it.

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