Facial Recognition and Privacy

Have you seen someone familiar, but you just cannot remember who he is? Well, the technology for that is available here and now. Face recognition technology has come a long way since its invention. How does it work? Based on a mathematical and programming core, facial recognition uses complex algorithms to work out precise data such as pixel values. The data is then used to predict corresponding features of a human face. For example on Facebook, each tag that you make of someone’s face contributes to all the data being used to generate a unique algorithm for that person.

Face recognition is definitely a goldmine, with its plethora of uses. The most commonly known use is probably that of security reasons. On the flipside, the choice to remain anonymous and do as we please (with ethics, of course) is slowly slipping through our fingers. One such example is NameTag, an app that allows you to trawl social media and dating websites for the identity of someone based on their photograph. In US, the photograph will also be run through a publicly available list of sex offenders. Building on the invention the Google Glass, NameTag allows you to obtain that information the moment you talk to someone, with the help of the camera.

On the other hand, CreepShield is a website that tells you if the potential date that you just met online was a sexual offender in the past. It seems like a good idea, unless your own photo is mistakenly matched. While the convenience of getting to know someone is greatly increased, privacy concerns are beginning to emerge. A person using NameTag could genuinely want to make friends in the fastest way possible; or he could be a serial killer looking for a victim to stalk. As US senator Al Franken puts it, “Unlike other biometric identifiers such as iris scans and fingerprints, facial recognition is designed to operate at a distance, without the knowledge or consent of the person being identified,” he wrote. “Individuals cannot reasonably prevent themselves from being identified by cameras that could be anywhere – on a lamp post, attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle or, now, integrated into the eyewear of a stranger.”

Criminal implications aside, facial recognition technologies could be used by political parties for their agendas. NameTag’s website says, “Don’t be a stranger.”, but what if you want to? In countries with more conservative political systems and laws, a protestor would hesitate to join in a public rally if they know the possibility of being profiled simply by being present. For activists or bloggers in those countries, the fear for their lives is real, such as the case of blogger Sattar Beheshti, an Iranian blogger allegedly tortured to death.

When Facebook silently introduced the feature of automatically tagging people in photos, it almost got itself into a lawsuit with the state data protection authority in Hamburg. In a statement released by the organization – “This requires storing a comprehensive database of the biometric features of all users.” The problem was that “Facebook has introduced this feature in Europe, without informing the user and without obtaining the required consent. Unequivocal consent of the parties is required by both European and national data protection law.” One other issue raised was that Facebook could have amassed sensitive data from its 600 million users, by using this facial recognition technology. An independent non-profit research center in Washington – EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) was one of the groups who lodged a complaint against Facebook for collection and use of biometric data collection without user consent.  Moreover, there seems to be no option for users to stop this collection.

The above mentioned lawsuits are just two amongst many others. Facial recognition software certainly has the potential to be of great help, but with current laws have yet to catch up with the rapid advances in technology. Meanwhile, whether you recognize the threat of facial recognition or not, you might want to think twice about tagging faces.


A. Fowler, G., & Lawton, C. (2011). Facebook Again in Spotlight on Privacy. WSJ. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304778304576373730948200592

Chayka, K. (2014). The facial recognition databases are coming. Why aren’t the privacy laws? | Kyle Chayka. the Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/30/facial-recognition-databases-privacy-laws

Dormehl, L. (2014). Facial recognition: is the technology taking away your identity?. the Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/04/facial-recognition-technology-identity-tesco-ethical-issues

Epic.org,. (2015). EPIC – About EPIC. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from https://epic.org/epic/about.html

Epic.org,. EPIC – In re Facebook and the Facial Identification of Users. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from https://epic.org/privacy/facebook/facebook_and_facial_recognitio.html

Musil, S. (2011). Facebook faces lawsuit over facial-recognition feature – CNET. CNET. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from http://www.cnet.com/news/facebook-faces-lawsuit-over-facial-recognition-feature/

Nametag.ws,. (2015). NameTag App | Your Photo Shares You | Powered by the FacialNetwork.com. Retrieved 12 March 2015, from http://www.nametag.ws/

Peters, L. (2015). Bustle. Bustle.com. Retrieved 13 March 2015, from http://www.bustle.com/articles/22240-creepshield-can-tell-you-if-your-tinder-hookup-is-a-sex-offender

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