Firms find­ing more mugs for the cam­era

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is spread­ing, and so are pri­vacy con­cerns.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - BEN SO­BEL

Be­ing anony­mous in public might be a thing of the past.

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is al­ready be­ing de­ployed to let bricks- and­mor­tar stores scan the face of ev­ery shop­per, iden­tify re­turn­ing cus­tomers and of­fer them in­di­vid­u­al­ized pric­ing — or f ind “pre- iden­ti­fied shoplifters” and “known liti­gious in­di­vid­u­als.”

Mi­crosoft has patented a bill­board that iden­ti­fies you as you walk by and serves ads per­son­al­ized to your pur­chase history. An app called NameTag con­tends it can iden­tify peo­ple on the street just by look­ing at them through Google Glass.

There are no fed­eral laws that specif­i­cally gov­ern the

use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy. But both Illi­nois and Texas have laws against us­ing such tech­nol­ogy to iden­tify peo­ple with­out their in­formed con­sent. The Illi­nois law is fac­ing the most public test to date of what its pro­tec­tions mean for fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

A law­suit f iled in Illi­nois trial court in April al­leges Face­book vi­o­lates the state’s Bio­met­ric In­for­ma­tion Pri­vacy Act by tak­ing users’ faceprints “with­out even in­form­ing its users — let alone ob­tain­ing their in­formed writ­ten con­sent.” This suit, Licata vs. Face­book, could re­shape Face­book’s prac­tices and may even inf lu­ence the ex­pan­sion of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy. How com­mon — and how ac­cu­rate — is fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy?

Even if you don’t walk by ads that ad­dress you by name, odds are that your fa­cial ge­om­e­try is al­ready be­ing an­a­lyzed regularly. Law en­force­ment agen­cies de­ploy fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy in public and can iden­tify some­one by search­ing a bio­met­ric data­base that con­tains in­for­ma­tion on as many as one- third of Amer­i­cans.

Com­pa­nies such as Face­book and Google also rou­tinely col­lect fa­cial recog­ni­tion data from their users. ( Face­book’s sys­tem is on by de­fault; Google’s works only if you opt in to it.) Their tech­nol­ogy may be even more ac­cu­rate than the gov­ern­ment’s. Google’s FaceNet al­go­rithm can iden­tify faces with 99.63% ac­cu­racy. Face­book’s al­go­rithm, Deep­Face, gets a 97.25% rat­ing. The FBI, on the other hand, has roughly 85% ac­cu­racy in iden­ti­fy­ing po­ten­tial matches.

Face­book and Google use fa­cial recog­ni­tion to de­tect when a user ap­pears in a pho­to­graph and to sug­gest that he or she be tagged.

With the boom in per­son­al­ized advertising tech­nol­ogy, a fa­cial recog­ni­tion data­base of its users is prob­a­bly very valu­able to Face­book. The com­pany hasn’t dis­closed the size of its faceprint repos­i­tory, but it does ac­knowl­edge that it has more than 250 bil­lion user-up­loaded photos — with 350 mil­lion more up­loaded ev­ery day. The di­rec­tor of en­gi­neer­ing at Face­book’s AI re­search lab re­cently sug­gested that this in­for­ma­tion was “the big­gest hu­man data set in the world.”

Ea­ger to ex­tract that value, Face­book signed users up by de­fault when it in­tro­duced Tag Sug­ges­tions in 2011. The roll­out prompted Sen. Al Franken ( D- Minn.) to worry that “Face­book may have cre­ated the world’s largest pri­vately held data­base of faceprints — with­out the ex­plicit con­sent of its users.”

The in­tro­duc­tion of Tag Sug­ges­tions is what’s at is­sue in the Illi­nois law­suit. In Illi­nois, com­pa­nies have to in­form users when­ever bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion is be­ing col­lected, ex­plain the pur­pose of the col­lec­tion and dis­close how long they’ll keep the data. Once in­formed, users must pro­vide “writ­ten re­lease” that they con­sent to the data col­lec­tion. Only af­ter re­ceiv­ing this writ­ten con­sent may com­pa­nies ob­tain bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing scans of fa­cial ge­om­e­try.

Face­book de­clined to com­ment on the law­suit and has not f iled a writ­ten re­sponse in court.

It’s un­clear whether to­day’s par­a­digm for con­sent — click­ing a “Sign Up” but­ton that at­tests you’ve read and agreed to a lengthy pri­vacy pol­icy — ful­fills the re­quire­ments writ­ten into the Illi­nois law. If the law does ap­ply, Face­book could be on the hook for sig­nif­i­cant f inan­cial penal­ties. This case is one of the f irst ap­plica- tions of the Illi­nois law to fa­cial recog­ni­tion, and it will set an im­por­tant prece­dent for con­sumer pri­vacy. Why bio­met­ric pri­vacy laws?

Bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion, like face ge­om­e­try, is high­stakes data be­cause it en­codes phys­i­cal prop­er­ties that are im­mutable, or at least very hard to con­ceal. More­over, un­like other bio­met­rics, faceprints are easy to col­lect re­motely and sur­rep­ti­tiously by stak­ing out a public place with a de­cent cam­era.

An­tic­i­pat­ing the im­por­tance of this in­for­ma­tion, Texas passed a law in 2001 that re­stricts how com­mer­cial en­ti­ties can col­lect, store, trade in and use bio­met­ric data. Illi­nois passed a sim­i­lar law in 2008 called the Bio­met­ric In­for­ma­tion Pri­vacy Act, or BIPA. A year later, Texas fol­lowed up with another law to fur­ther reg­u­late bio­met­ric data in com­merce.

The Texas laws were passed with fa­cial recog­ni­tion in mind. Brian McCall, now chan­cel­lor of the Texas State Univer­sity sys­tem, in­tro­duced both Texas bills dur­ing his ten­ure as a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

“Leg­is­la­tion is sel­dom ahead of science, and in this case I felt it was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary that leg­is­la­tion get ahead of com­mon prac­tice,” McCall said. “And in fact, we were con­cerned about how the mar­ket would use per­son­ally iden­ti­fi­able in­for­ma­tion.”

Said James Ferg- Cadima, a for­mer at­tor­ney with the ACLU of Illi­nois who worked on draft­ing and lob­by­ing for the BIPA: “Oddly enough, there was lit­tle voice from the pri­vate busi­ness sec­tor.”

This cor­po­rate in­dif­fer­ence might be a thing of the past. Tech com­pa­nies of all stripes have grown more and more in­ter­ested in bio­met­rics. They’ve be­come more po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful, too: For in­stance, Face­book’s fed­eral lob­by­ing ex­pen­di­tures grew from $ 207,878 in 2009 to $ 9.34 mil­lion in 2014. Test­ing the Illi­nois law

Asked about the pri­vacy law cited in the Licata case, Jay Edel­son, the man­ag­ing part­ner of the f irm rep­re­sent­ing the plain­tiff, said: “The key thing to un­der­stand is that al­most all pri­vacy statutes are re­ally con­sent statutes.” The law­suit stands to de­ter­mine pre­cisely what kind of con­sent the Illi­nois law de­mands.

If the court f inds that Face­book can be sued for vi­o­lat­ing the Illi­nois bio­met­rics law, and that its opt- out con­sent frame­work for Tag Sug­ges­tions vi­o­lated the law, it may up­end the prac­tices of one of the world’s largest In­ter­net com­pa­nies, one that is pos­si­bly the sin­gle largest user of com­mer­cial fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy. And if the law­suit fails for one rea­son or another, it would em­pha­size that reg­u­la­tion of fa­cial recog­ni­tion needs to take place on a fed­eral level if it is to hap­pen at all. Ei­ther way, there’s a chance this law­suit will end up shap­ing the fu­ture of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

Justin Sul­li­van Getty I mages

FACE­BOOK’S Mark Zucker­berg. A law­suit f iled in Illi­nois al­leges the com­pany takes users’ faceprints with­out in­form­ing them or ob­tain­ing their con­sent.

As­so­ci­ated Press

FACE­BOOK’S Mo­ments app uses fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy to group the pho­to­graphs in a user’s smart­phone based on who is in them.

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