We’ve come a long way from being able to superimpose Trump’s hair on our own heads. We’ve also come a long way from wearing masks and sunglasses in public for reasons of fashion or healthcare. Now, it’s about dodging facial recognition.
Protesters in Hong Kong are doing exactly this to avoid facial recognition technologies, with some even employing lasers that cameras can’t process or recognize.
But it’s not just amid mass protests in Hong Kong that everyone should be worried about facial recognition technology. It’s used everywhere from airports and shopping centers to all that lies in between.
Proponents hail the crime-solving and potential crime-prevention benefits, but the sacrifice is great.
Privacy advocates say it could lead to automatically identifying and tracking anyone, not just criminals, and it can be used for violations of privacy.
For instance, the New York Times reports that one small tech startup company, with initial funding from controversial Facebook board member Peter Thiel, is selling more than three billion photos of U.S. citizens to hundreds of law enforcement agencies.
Clearview AI, a small startup created three years ago by Australian tech entrepreneur Hoan Ton-That, whose prior claim to fame was an app that let users put President Trump’s hairdo on their own photos, now has a massive database of photos scraped off Facebook, Venmo, YouTube and other sites.
This would be a sizable boost to the FBI’s own database–one of the largest–of over 641 million images of U.S. citizens.
The company also reported that its customer base has actually grown to more than 600 law enforcement agencies and some private security companies. NYT listed the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and local police forces across the U.S.–along with a lineup of private security outfits.
Access by private security companies should be cause enough for concern, but it goes beyond that. Clearview has also reportedly developed a feature for augmented reality glasses that could allow users to instantly identify anyone they pass in the street.
The company says it has no plans to commercialize these–for now.
Clearview also claims it only uses publicly available images, including news articles, social media accounts, and public mugshot databases. So according to them, they are not violating any laws.
Indeed, everyone using social media to live virtual lives is essentially gifting images to companies such as Clearview, to law enforcement agencies, and to private security companies.
Privacy is something that we, in this era, seem to give away freely and value far too little–until it’s too late.
The NYT revelations come as U.S. lawmakers are taking steps to crack down on the use of live facial recognition, citing privacy and governance concerns.
A few cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, have banned use of facial recognition technology, but there are no bans at a federal level yet.
Last November, two senators introduced a bipartisan bill that would limit how agencies like the FBI and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could use the tech. Elsewhere, the European Commission announced that it is considering banning the technology from public areas for up to five years.
Nor is Clearview the only threat on this level. There are quite a few companies in the facial recognition industry, both well-known and lesser-known, and some boasting contracts with various law enforcement and government agencies.
The market for facial recognition tech is gaining in leaps and bounds. It’s expected to grow from $3.2 billion last year to $7.0 billion by 2024. That’s in the U.S. alone.
Amazon seems to be increasingly working with U.S. police forces, such as it did in 2018 when marketing its facial recognition product, Rekognition. That move caused nearly two dozen Amazon shareholder groups to pressure CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling it out of concern that the technology would represent yet another threat to our privacy and help the government cement its mass surveillance capabilities.
Rekognition also curates photos of online profiles and shopping experiences, as well as images from its Ring doorbell security application, creating profiles of U.S. citizens. As for Ring, more than 600 police forces across the country have entered into partnerships with the company, allowing them to quickly request and download video captured by the cameras.
In 2018, employees from a few tech companies, including Microsoft, Salesforce and Google, demanded those companies stop selling software and services to the government and law enforcement agencies.
But it’s a slippery slope, and when big money is involved and much of that money goes to advertising the everyday convenience of these fun new technologies, the public tends to become numb to the end game. That endgame is the extremely lucrative complete destruction of privacy.