How Facial Recognition is Being Used and Why it Matters

Over the past twenty years movies have portrayed facial recognition as a futuristic technology that primarily only government agencies utilized. Contrast that to today where facial recognition has become a mainstream technology that people use in their everyday lives. Americans use this technology on their phones and to open and use some of their applications. The technology is more secure than a password because it is using your unique facial structure, which is more difficult to hack. However, there are potential privacy concerns with the technology as well. It is important for facial recognition users to understand how it works and what risks are associated with the technology.

Facial recognition is a method of determining a person’s identity through their face. This is done via a computer taking multiple measurements of a face through either an image or video. The measurements are anything from the distance between the eyes to the shape of the chin and are aggregated and put into a formula that will be unique and specific to the person being identified. The formula is then compared to another image or multiple images to identify if there are any matches. The systems are not 100% accurate, however they have been used to identify people at protests, criminals, etc.

Many different industries have begun utilizing facial recognition technology. The financial industry has implemented the technology into their phone applications to allow users to login via facial recognition. The retail industry, such as Target and Walmart, are implementing the technology to catch shoplifters. Car manufacturers plan to add the technology to new vehicles allowing only authorized users to start the vehicles, hoping this could reduce car theft. And of course, major technology companies as well as startups are creating and utilizing facial recognition to improve their products as well as enable law enforcement to use the technology.

The use of facial recognition by law enforcement completely shifts the purpose of the technology from enabling privacy for a user to surveillance of the masses. Law enforcement requires a large database of faces to pull from if they expect to potentially find a suspect. Thus, some tech companies scour social media websites and gather photos to add to their database. Although these photos are public on the social media platforms, it is an invasion of privacy because users are not providing consent for their photo to be used in the facial recognition system.

Laws and regulations on facial recognition are sparse in the United States, there is no federal law regulating the use of facial recognition. Currently, a small number of states have implemented biometric use regulations and thirteen cities have banned the use of the technology by law enforcement. With little to no regulation on biometrics and facial recognition, Americans are left to fend for themselves in understanding the effects the technology could have on their lives.

Even for the people who feel like they have nothing to hide, their ability to consent to the use of their personal information is being taken from them. Since no consent is required under many of these facial recognition systems, most people have no idea that their posts on Facebook are being compiled and used to identify them. Law enforcement has also started partnering with private companies to install surveillance cameras on properties allowing them to surveille the streets 24/7. This surveillance partnered with facial recognition enables law enforcement to find suspects more easily.

Americans’ privacy is being breached without their knowledge and since there are minimal regulations on facial recognition technology, there is little we can do about it. Although facial recognition systems can improve and simplify our lives, we should fully understand how it is being used against us. A company’s privacy policy and terms of service should outline if facial recognition is being used and how. Until we have more regulations on facial recognition, remember that anytime you use social media and facial recognition you are sacrificing your privacy for convenience.

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