Privacy under attack — Are they tracking you?

The escalating assault on individual privacy is frightening (and enraging) enough as it is, but revelations in a New York Times article from a few days ago (November 12th) make it all even scarier … and more outrageous. The report, “Face Recognition Makes the Leap From Sci-Fi” by Natasha Singer, can be found at the following URL:

(The Times has a paywall, but accessing it through links like this should get you through…)

Basically, this “Face Recognition” article oughta give you pause about putting your photo up anywhere on the Internet, especially if you highly value your privacy and anonymity. (Notice I’m not rushing to post my photo anywhere on this blog…)

Singer recounts how this technology is proliferating, creeping creepily into all kinds of applications, with the potential for eradicating the ability of every single one of us to remain anonymous, unnoticed … and untracked. That’s the really scary bit – the prospect that “they” (Godzilla corporations or state authorities) are acquiring the capability to track you anywhere you go … anytime … all the time …

Describing facial recognition technology as “a staple of sci-fi thrillers”, Singer relates an application being used by pubs in Chicago:

SceneTap, a new app for smart phones, uses cameras with facial detection software to scout bar scenes. Without identifying specific bar patrons, it posts information like the average age of a crowd and the ratio of men to women, helping bar-hoppers decide where to go. More than 50 bars in Chicago participate.

As SceneTap suggests, techniques like facial detection, which perceives human faces but does not identify specific individuals, and facial recognition, which does identify individuals, are poised to become the next big thing for personalized marketing and smart phones. That is great news for companies that want to tailor services to customers, and not so great news for people who cherish their privacy. The spread of such technology — essentially, the democratization of surveillance — may herald the end of anonymity.

“And” as the article reports, “this technology is spreading.” Singer cites the technology of Manhattan-based Immersive Labs, a company that “has developed software for digital billboards using cameras to gauge the age range, sex and attention level of a passer-by.”

The smart signs, scheduled to roll out this month in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, deliver ads based on consumers’ demographics. In other words, the system is smart enough to display, say, a Gillette ad to a male passer-by rather than an ad for Tampax.

But, she warns, “Those endeavors pale next to the photo-tagging suggestion tool introduced by Facebook this year.

When a person uploads photos to the site, the “Tag Suggestions” feature uses facial recognition to identify that user’s friends in those photos and automatically suggests name tags for them. It’s a neat trick that frees people from the cumbersome task of repeatedly typing the same friends’ names into their photo albums.

Singer notes that other commonly available photo editing software, such as tools offered by Picasa and Google, “work similarly.”

Her article provides several more examples of the application of this technology, most of them designed just to detect whether an individual’s face is visible at all, or what the person’s sex (“gender”) is. “But privacy advocates worry about more intrusive situations” Singer notes.

Government privacy guardians (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) are supposedly exhibiting some concern – the article cites examples of concern expressed by officials at the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the US Federal Trade Commission and the Hamburg Data Protection Authority in Germany. Specifically citing the head of the latter authority, for instance, Singer reports that “many users do not understand that Facebook’s tag suggestion feature involves storing people’s biometric data to re-identify them in later photos.”

According to that particular official, writes Singer, “In the long term … such popular uses of facial recognition could moot people’s right to remain anonymous.”

I’m not a Luddite, but Holy Moly, this is one leading-edge technology I’d like to bollix as much as I can…

(c) L. Henry aka Writing Perspectives


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