Urban stories

Fingerprints No More

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Fingerprints are no longer essential to the police or investigators to identify a suspect. It’s all about the face. A new technology – which has been developed by the American military and has served to identify terrorists and other adversaries during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is now in circulation and is being used for civil purposes. It’s not just used by police departments in the U.S. – it has become a “weapon” of advertising agencies, who can scan your, my or even a baby’s facial expression and read our emotions at the moment they see an image of a particular product.

Advertising giant M&C Saatchi is currently testing advertising billboards with hidden Microsoft Kinect cameras that read viewers’ emotions and react according to whether a person’s facial expression is happy, sad or neutral.

“The test adverts – which feature a fictitious coffee brand named Bahio – have already appeared on Oxford Street and Clapham Common in London. So we now have adverts that can read the reactions of those that view them and adapt accordingly, cycling through different images, designs, fonts and colors,” Andrew McStay writes in a recent report for the Conversation, in describing the new technology. It’s not clear where Saatchi acquired the capability. The military obviously passed the technology to some American police departments, and the country lacks federal regulation about the use of this technology. But big tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook certainly possessed facial recognition software even before that.

“It is a wild west,” says Brian Brackeen, CEO of Kairos, a facial recognition company that uses the technology to scan shopping malls to see how long people linger in front of window displays and analyze the gender breakdown of crowds. The tools can measure attention and detect emotions and ages. “The legal framework is very wide open,” he added in an interview for VICE News, which ran a long piece on Thursday about the booming facial recognition industry.

“Capturing, storing, and ultimately selling facial biometrics has already become big business. A recent research report valued the global facial recognition market at $1.3 billion in 2014. It could double by 2022.

“For now, this market is completely unregulated by the United States government,” VICE writes, quoting Minnesota senator Al Franken – seemingly the only politician fighting to regulate the problem. “Here’s what’s scary: facial recognition tracks you in the real world — from cameras on street corners and in shopping centers, and through photographs taken by friends and strangers alike,” said Franken, who thinks it’s time for stricter oversight.

Take Facebook, for instance: The company began collecting its users’ facial biometrics in 2010 and has acknowledged that it stores more than 250 billion user-uploaded images. One of its engineering directors has called it “the biggest human dataset in the world.” Apparently Facebook only uses tagging software for internal use, but it has not ruled out monetizing its massive database. So in 2013, when Al Franken asked Rob Sherman, Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy, if the company planned to sell facial data to third parties, he answered that it was difficult to know how Facebook will look like over five to 10 years. A wild west indeed.

The New York Times published a very interesting piece on the reigning chaos when it comes to the police use and abuse of facial recognition technology, describing some innocent victims of the new procedures for the identification of suspects. In San Diego, which is one of the advance frontiers for the use of this new technology, county documents show that over 33 days in January and February, 26 San Diego law enforcement agencies used the software to try to identify people on more than 20,600 occasions! Without federal regulation, the use of this technology varies from one county to the next, reports the New York Times. “Yet the F.B.I. is pushing ahead with its $1 billion Next Generation Identification program, in which the agency will gather data like fingerprints, iris scans and photographs, as well as information collected through facial recognition software. That software is capable of analyzing driver’s license photos and images from the tens of thousands of surveillance cameras around the country. The F.B.I. system will eventually be made accessible to more than 18,000 local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies,” the paper reports.

I recently visited a government office where they took a photo of me. I am pretty sure that the photo was for the purpose of facial recognition. Personally, I do not care, as long as I can write about these problems. And yes, it would be nicer if somebody told me why the photo was needed. Since every face is different, and since this new technology is capable of measuring the precise space between eyes, the exact curve of the cheek and the fullness of the lips, and since the sum of these features distinguishes one person from another – even identical twins – I am not worried that I will be confused with a criminal or terrorist. In some ways, this scientific method is better than a nearsighted or subjective eyewitness who might pull you out of a police line-up based on your race and their prejudice. If the faceprint excludes look-a-likes and is used for good purposes, then I say, “Welcome.” If not, and if it is not well regulated, then I would very much prefer to spend $240 for a pair of those Blade Runner glasses that prevent the facial recognition of about 16,000 points on my face.

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