Facial recognition isn’t creepy: it’s dangerous

Why do people use soft, subjective words like “creepy” to criticise facial recognition in social networking sites? Eric Schmidt has said that facial recognition is ‘Too creepy even for Google’ but by not damning it more strongly, does he deliberately leave himself wiggle room?

We can and really should analyse facial recognition objectively.

First and foremost is a basic technicality: facial recognition converts vast drifts of hitherto anonymous image data into Personally Identifiable Information, and in so doing instantly creates obligations under black letter privacy law in Europe and elsewhere

The collection of Personal Information needs to be properly disclosed. Facebook appears evasive in the way it describes (or not) biometric templates. It proudly announces that members can remove tags yet it actually retains the biometric templates until an extra step is taken to have them deleted too (see http://www.facebook.com/help/?faq=225110000848463 ***).

*** Update: Some time in early 2012 Facebook updated its Help pages to provide more information, and to improve the way they manage templates. The link above is now dead, but it’s preserved for the record. Facebook now describes how templates are created, and they now delete templates when you disable photo tagging: https://www.facebook.com/help/tag-suggestions. This improved transparency is welcome, as is the automatic deletion of templates, without the extra un-obvious step that was previously necessary.

Facebook promotes as privacy enhancing the fact that only friends are allowed to suggest tags. Let’s not be naive about this. Facebook are cleverly crowd-sourcing the training of their biometric algorithms, and they wouldn’t want too many guesses from strangers polluting their data.

And then there is the purpose of the collection. Let’s be plain about why Facebook and the other informopolies are so keen on facial recognition: it’s to improve their ability to make connections. They will now be able to spot when two people are in the same place at the same time. And they will be able to tell what cars people like to drive, what movies they’re watching, what devices they like to use — without anyone needing to expressly “like” anything anymore. This is pure gold.

By maintaining emotive or intuitive descriptions of biometric concerns, technologists are leaving biometric critics in a soft corner. This might be an innocent side effect of trying to use plain language, or it could be cleverly calculated in order to keep their options open. But either way, dumbing down the debate won’t help in the long run.