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An overlay depicts how facial recognition software pinpoints certain features and compares them to a database. The distance between the eyes and the shape of the cheekbone can be used to determine characteristics like sex and age. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
An overlay depicts how facial recognition software pinpoints certain features and compares them to a database. The distance between the eyes and the shape of the cheekbone can be used to determine characteristics like sex and age. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

Technology

Facial-recognition technology needs limits, privacy advocates warn Add to ...

Consider, for a moment, the amount of information that's contained in your face. It's a gold mine, a collection of identifiers unique to you, from its proportions to its features to the way it moves. A quick look tells your life story, indicating your sex, racial background and age, and, in the moment, your attentiveness and mood. Humans come hard-wired to intuit this information. But now, computers are catching up and learning to make sense of all manner of facial information gleaned from photos and videos.

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Before long, we'll be living in a world in which store signs know what kind of customer is looking at them, where home-security cameras know who's coming through the door and when Facebook will be able to tell if you're in a photo the moment it's uploaded. The distant future? Try next month. Your face is about to become big business and that has some players excited and others worried that citizens' control over their own privacy will be gravely eroded.

Facial-recognition technology has long been the domain of security agencies, which have used it to verify official documents, help secure borders and assist in policing duties. And while this field is only growing, the explosion of ever-faster computers, ever-cheaper cameras and growing network capacity has seen the technology making inroads into the consumer world as well.

In its rudimentary forms, consumers are already familiar with it: For years, point-and-shoot cameras have been able to pick out the faces in a scene and adjust the shot accordingly. Webcam software has long been able to spot faces, if only to overlay a mariachi hat and mustache in the right spot. But spotting faces and putting names to them are two different things.

Two key elements are required for facial recognition: Software that analyzes images and databases of identifying information that can link faces to names. One isn't much good without the other - but the Internet is bringing them together.

One online behemoth is uniquely poised to put a face to a name.

Facebook, a company with more than 750 million users and a spotty privacy record, is rolling out facial-recognition technology that will automatically suggest names of friends in photos that are being uploaded. Already available in many countries - but not yet in Canada - the feature is kicking up a cloud of protest.

The feature only identifies people on the user's friends' list, so you won't be tagged in the background of a stranger's Eiffel Tower tourist snapshot. People who upload photos sign off on the identifications; users who are identified are notified and can un-tag themselves. However, like many Facebook innovations, the feature will be activated by default - users will have to opt out if they don't want their faces scanned.

In the United States, a coalition of prominent digital-rights groups has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging, among other things, that users aren't fully informed of the biometric information that's "secretly" being collected about them. They also fear that Facebook might be more willing to share this data with eager advertisers and less-than-scrupulous app developers.

Facebook has not announced if or when its feature will roll out in Canada, but privacy advocates are worried here, too.

"I think it's appalling," says Ann Cavoukian, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. "It is very sensitive information, and to rely on 'Trust us, we're Facebook' - they're asking too much."

Ms. Cavoukian, who has done extensive work internationally on ensuring that information collected about users cannot be used against them, says that privacy concerns arise when large databases of biometric identifiers - things like faces and fingerprints - can be matched against identifying information, like names.

Facebook not only has access to a vast store of names and pictures of faces - which it's moving to connect faster than ever, by using facial recognition to facilitate the tagging process - those faces are connected with places and events, that, when combined, could create a sweeping picture of who was doing what, where and when.

"You could have gone to a party and not thought twice about it, and maybe there's an indiscriminate photo taken," says Ms. Cavoukian. "It could be automatically tagged. Then they found out something happened at the party. The police come a-calling and you get a knock on the door."

The public might be accepting of this scenario in the case of a murder. But what if the police decided to crack down on marijuana use? Or untangle associations of political opponents? Canadians might not have to worry about such implications today, but Facebook users under more authoritarian regimes might not be so lucky.

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