Facial Recognition: A Top Privacy Issue of Our Time3 min read

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Facial recognition technology – especially as the technology becomes more sophisticated – may be one of the gravest privacy threats of our time. It has the potential to remove the anonymity Americans expect in crowds and most public places. There are the obvious “chilling effects” it could have on political demonstrations and speech, concerns being monitored by civil liberties advocates like the ACLU, EPIC, and EFF. However, this technology will also very likely be used in greater capacity in the commercial sector to further target consumers for advertising and discriminatory pricing purposes.

Earlier this month, Carnegie Mellon University researchers released a study detailing three experiments that reveal the possibility of identifying people, both online and in the real world, who may otherwise believe they are anonymous. The researchers took photos of people walking on campus and used facial recognition technology and information publicly available online to figure out their name, age, place of birth and, in some cases, even their Social Security number. Many individuals share a tremendous amount of information about themselves online, and the study demonstrates how easy it is to link this online information to a person using facial recognition technology.

According to an article published recently by the Los Angeles Times, several companies have already launched, or plan to launch soon, facial recognition technology that will be used for in-store digital displays and kiosks to make product suggestions based on the demographics gleaned from your face.  This might include a person’s sex, age range, and race or ethnicity.  

However, the article fails to mention the possibility that facial recognition software may be used for more than demographic targeting. In his book Niche Envy, Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explains how companies are using increasingly sophisticated market segmentation methods to offer different prices to different people, a practice known as price discrimination. The more detailed the profile a company can build on someone, the more accurately it can estimate how much that person is willing to spend on a product.

Professor Turow focused primarily on online data collection, but as the Carnegie Mellon study illustrates, facial recognition technology makes it possible to connect someone’s offline identity with his or her online identity without obtaining consent. As facial recognition technology advances and the number of consumers using social media continues to increase, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where a consumer walks into a store and is treated differently or even sees different prices based on the combination of this biometric data and personal information publicly available online.

A further concern is the unwanted identification of individuals with sensitive circumstances– such as victims of domestic violence, stalking victims, and law enforcement officers.

Individuals should be able to control who has their personal information, how it is kept, and what can be done with it.  Facial recognition software can enable companies to identify and target Americans without their knowledge or permission. Privacy laws in the U.S. have not kept pace with technology, and there are no laws specifically governing commercial uses of facial recognition technology. With a grave threat to our privacy quickly emerging, there is little protecting us. We need to demand stronger commercial privacy laws from our elected representatives. We need to educate ourselves about companies that use facial recognition and be prepared to vote with our feet.

California is a leader in consumer privacy protection. We can and should lead the nation in proactively protecting consumers’ privacy from the erosion it faces by the potential abuse of facial recognition technology.  

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Amber Yoo is Director of Communications at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nationally recognized consumer education and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to protecting the privacy of American consumers.

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