Facial recognition and identity risk

Back in 2011, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University showed that facial recognition could increase privacy risks. In the first test that they ran, they managed to identify people on a dating website where members didn’t use their real names. In the second experiment, they discovered the identities of students walking on campus, by linking images of their faces to those of their Facebook profiles. Photographs of students’ faces also eventually led researchers to guess their personal interests and, in some cases, their Social Security numbers (a form of identification in the United States).

Initially used by governments to combat crime, facial recognition has been quickly adopted by companies too. For starters, it allows Facebook to suggest friends that you can tag in photographs that you’ve uploaded.

In a world where marketers require demographics in order to tailor their products and services to an individual’s preferences, facial recognition is another type of data to be collected. It’s not just a case of matching your face to your Facebook profile photo; Microsoft Cognitive Services’ ‘Face API’, for instance, analyses photographs of faces to guess personal details about its subject. These include age, gender, pose, smile and facial hair.

Facial recognition identity risks

Facial recognition can be a useful tool for governments, companies and consumers, but it also comes with risks, especially to individuals. The latter includes:

  • The lack of permission
    Facial recognition data can easily be collected in public places – all the software would need is a clear image of the subject’s face.
  • Predatory marketing
    Software which analyses facial expressions could potentially be put to use by some companies to prey on vulnerable customers. This could be done by segmenting extreme emotions – such as distress – and tailoring their products and services to these individuals.
  • Disadvantage when applying for jobs
    Job applicants who don’t want to give potential employers access to details of their personal lives can keep these private, such as by selecting the related privacy settings on social media. However, facial recognition could potentially allow recruiters to find out more about you than you’d realise.
  • Stalking
    Tools like reverse image searches can provide stalkers with more data about their victims.
  • Identity fraud
    Criminals who have collected enough personal information on you could commit identity fraud. This could have a significant effect on your personal life, including on your finances.

How to protect yourself against the risks

Used responsibly, facial recognition can be a useful tool. However, it's still practical to try to protect yourself from the potential risks involved. If you’re offered the option for your image to be captured for facial recognition purposes, stop and consider whether it’s worth it.

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