Living in a World With Facial Recognition

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This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

A new study looks at privacy in a world where computers can increasingly recognize faces in a crowd or online. Alessandro Acquisti at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, led the study.

Professor Acquisti says social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn represent some of the world's largest databases of identities. He sees increasing threats to privacy in facial recognition software and cloud computing -- the ability to store huge amounts of information in data centers.

ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: "The convergence of all these technologies -- face recognition, social networks, cloud computing -- and all these advances in statistical re-identification techniques and data mining are creating this world where you can blend together online and offline data. You can start from an anonymous face and end up with sensitive inferences about that person.”

Recognition systems measure things like the size and position of a nose, the distance between the eyes and the shape of cheekbones. The software compares lots of images to try to identify the person. This is what the professor means by "statistical re-identification techniques."

Facial recognition programs are used in police and security operations. But the software is increasingly popular in other uses, including social media sites.

For the study, the Carnegie Mellon team used software from Pittsburg Pattern Recognition, or PittPat. Google bought that company last month. The software can recognize faces in photos and videos.

The researchers did three experiments. First, they collected profile photos from a dating website. Its users try to protect their privacy by not listing their real name. But comparing their photos to pictures on Facebook identified one out of ten people.

In the second experiment, the Carnegie Mellon researchers asked permission to take pictures of students on campus. They compared these to photos on Facebook. This time they correctly identified one-third of the students.

In the third experiment, they tried to see how much they could learn about people just from a photo. They found not only names but birthdates, personal interests and even locations, when people listed them. And Professor Acquisti says the technology is only improving.

ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: “Because face recognizers keep improving accuracy, because cloud computing keeps offering more power, and because more and more images of ourselves are going to be online, we are getting really close to this future where what we did as a proof of concept will be possible to do by anyone on a massive scale.”

In June, Facebook launched a facial recognition system to help users "tag" or list the names of people in photos. Germany last month became the first country to declare this software an illegal violation of privacy.

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. Share your thoughts about privacy and technology at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember.

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Facial Recognition Systems Bring Privacy Concerns

Today we take another look at facial recognition systems. These can tag friends in Facebook photos or help police identify suspects in the recent riots in Britain.

Kurt Roemer is chief security strategist for Citrix Systems in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He says technology makes it easier than ever for governments to identify people.

KURT ROEMER: "Governments can go through and identify, profile and target people, basically in any order. And it is very much a fine line between effective law enforcement and privacy.” :10

Kristene Unsworth researches information policy at Drexel College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She says she is concerned that governments and police are increasingly using facial recognition software without clearly defined policies.

KRISTENE UNSWORTH: “There is so much secrecy around this information that we don’t really know how these kind of images or other sorts of personal data points are being used, how long the information is being retained. All of those kinds of things. So I guess for me it is an issue of transparency and dialogue.”:21

Questions like these are part of a larger debate about privacy and free speech. After the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the possibility of interfering with social networks. He said the question was whether it would be right to stop people from communicating "when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."

China's official news agency Xinhua says the British government has "recognized that a balance needs to be struck between freedom and the monitoring of social media tools." Xinhua added, "We may wonder why western leaders, on the one hand, tend to indiscriminately accuse other nations of monitoring, but on the other take for granted their steps to monitor and control the Internet."

Europe has some of the world's strongest policies on privacy rights. But Kurt Roemer says, like other western governments, they have not clearly defined their policies on new technologies.

KURT ROEMER: “China calling that out really shows that we have some issues to address here from a policy perspective, in addition to technology.” :08

One debate involves an action in San Francisco on August eleventh by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. BART disabled wireless service in some of its underground stations for three hours. It says protesters were planning to use mobile devices to organize activities to disrupt train service. BART has faced protests over what activists say is police abuse by transit officers.

BART says it acted to protect public safety. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California says the decision was in effect an effort by a government agency "to silence its critics." The Federal Communications Commission says it is collecting information about BART's actions.

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. You can find part one of our report on facial recognition systems at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember.