In the Orwellian Police State that is our world, facial recognition software is cropping up more and more. From the ever-encroaching Facebook to local police departments to airport checkpoints, it’s becoming harder to be anonymous and protect your personal privacy.
The deployment of FaceFirst in the United States still begs questions concerning the relationship between security and privacy, though, and is likely to remain an issue of contention until agencies in San Diego and elsewhere explain what exactly they’re up to.
According to a report in Southern California’s News 10 published this week, an unnamed law enforcement agency in San Diego County has been testing a handheld version of FaceFirst for about five months now.
On the record, though, no agency in the US has been forthcoming with why it’s using those specific facial scanners or even confirming it’s in their arsenal of ever expanding surveillance tools.
“If they spot someone who doesn’t have identification, they can take their picture with their phone and immediately get a result,” Joseph Saad, business development director for FaceFirst, tells News 10.
Saad says his company predicts that “facial recognition will be in every day society” soon, perhaps before many Americans want to admit.
According to filings available online, Airborne Biometrics was already cleared by the Government Services Administration (GSA) last year to have FaceFirst sold to any federal agency in the country.
“The ability to apply our technology for the advancement of our country has always been my number one goal,”Rosenkrantz said in April 2011 when Airborne was awarded an IT 70 Schedule contract for FaceFirst by the GSA.
Because that contact has since been signed with Uncle Sam, Rosenfratz and company can see that goal through, at least until its up for renewal in 2017, through a deal that lets them sell FaceFirst to “all federal agencies and other specified activities and agencies.”
This means that coming soon, to a law enforcement officer near you, a simple photo snapped with a device that looks similar to a cell phone will enable you to be identified. “According to New Scientist, facial recognition systems have reached the point where they can match a single face from a pool of 1.6 million mugshots/passport photos with 92% accuracy, in under 1.2 seconds.” (source) Not only that, but by linking through information posted on social media networks and photo sharing applications, the agency identifying you will have personal information such as your marital status, where you like to hang out (think about those Facebook “check-ins), your gym, your workplace, your children…and it’s nearly all information that we put out there ourselves.
To make matters worse, it’s not only government employees that can delve into your privacy. A garden variety stalker with off-the-shelf software and some minor data mining skills can get just as much information. If Joe Nutcase at the coffee shop can snap your picture, he can find out your name and a variety of other personal nuggets within seconds of downloading the photo.
Carnegie Mellon University researcher Alessandro Acquisti says that he has proven that most people can be identified through one photograph.
Acquisti found that the convergence of facial recognition software with social networks like Facebook tilt those odds wildly in favor of the would-be exposer, or stalker.
Acquisti searched for dating site users within 50 miles of a zip code, found about 6,000, and then found 110,000 Facebook profiles where users said they lived near that same zip code. After eliminating some profiles that didn’t match his criteria, he instructed computers to churn through about 500 million pairs of possibilities.
It would take a human about 2 million hours to compete such a task, but Carnegie Mellon’s cloud computing cluster got results in about 15 hours. One in 10 members of the dating site were positively “outed” by the database search. A bit of fine-tuning — limiting the geographic area further or allowing approximate matches — produced even better results. And one sobering reminder: The researchers didn’t even need to log in to Facebook to get these results.
Acquisti’s team enjoyed even better results when they could obtain photographs themselves for matching purposes. Random students who agreed to be photographed on the Pittsburgh campus of Carnegie Mellon could be positively identified at three times the initial rate — or more than 30 percent.
The researchers didn’t stop there. Next, they linked the photos and names to student likes and dislikes gleaned from their profiles, with about 75 percent accuracy. Then, they combined this effort with work Acquisti had done in 2009 on predicting Social Security numbers, and found that they could predict the Social Security number for 28 percent of the subjects within four guesses. Finally, they built a mobile phone application that could achieve the same results while wandering around campus.
To refresh: Starting from a mere photo, they were able to determine name, friends, even SSNs.
So…how can you protect your privacy from the surveillance cameras that seem to be everywhere?
First, you need to understand how the technology works. There are certain points on the face that are targeted by the software: particularly eyes, nose, and mouth; where they meet, and the distance between them. The trick is to obscure these points without drawing undue attention to yourself through your efforts to camouflage them.
Black geometric shapes painted on the face seem to “fool” the devices into not recognizing the photo as a human face. However, it isn’t exactly subtle to walk around with black triangles and squares painted randomly on one’s face. One researcher from NYU, Adam Harvey, has been working on reverse engineering the technology in order to protect privacy. In the photo below, the faces with the red squares around them were identifiable by the software.
The places you want to obscure are:
- Distance between the eyes
- Width of the nose
- Depth of the eye sockets
- The shape of the cheekbones
- The length of the jaw line
“A spike of hair proved to be effective if it covered the area where the eyes, forehead and nose come together. Computer-vision software often looks for that spot, said Harvey, and will not detect a face without it. “(source)
Hats, hoodies and big sunglasses can help obscure some of the targeted facial areas but can also make you look suspicious, especially if the weather conditions don’t support the wearing of those items.
The “hacktivist” group Anonymous offers some suggestions too. The video below outlines a simple hat with LED lights that are invisible to people around you but complete obscure the face of the wearer.
If you are identified, take steps to limit the amount of information that is available about you.
- Limit your use of photographs on photosharing websites like Picasa and Photobucket.
- Don’t provide personal information about yourself and your family on social media sites like Facebook.
- Check your privacy settings on Facebook to be sure that others cannot “tag” you in photographs.
- Don’t use a photograph of yourself as a profile picture on Facebook – use a pet, a cup of coffee or something unidentifiable. Profile pictures cannot be made private.
- Resist the urge to have your work place, your Alma Mater, and your family members linked to your Facebook profile.
- Do some Google searches of yourself and see what information comes up. Take steps to remove as much information as possible.
Don’t fall for the adage, “If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about.” In a world that is looking more like an authoritarian science fiction movie every day, so many new laws are being passed that people formerly known as “law abiding citizens” are breaking them without even realizing that the regulations exist.
In the surveillance state that is America, we are all criminals waiting to be caught. (And never forget the NDAA – you can be indefinitely detained just because the government said so. )
Privacy is liberty – guard it carefully.
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