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Facial Recognition added to the list of privacy concerns

by | Jan 27, 2020

Personal data privacy is a growing concern across the globe. And while we focus on where our clicks and metadata end up, there is a new section of privacy invasion being introduced: the world of facial recognition. 

Unbeknownst to the average person, facial recognition and tracking have infiltrated our lives in many ways and will only continue to grow in relevance as technology develops. 

Companies like Clearview AI and Microsoft are on two ends of the spectrum when it comes to facial recognition, with competing technologies and legislations fight to protect and expose personal information. Data privacy remains an issue as well, as products like Apple’s Safari are revealed to be leaking the very information it’s sworn to protect. 

Clearview AI is threatening privacy as we know it.

Privacy concerns due to facial recognition efforts are growing and relevant.

Making big waves in facial recognition software is a company called Clearview AI, which has created a facial search engine of over 3 billion photos. On Sunday, January 18th, the New York Times (NYT) wrote a scathing piece exposing the 2017 start-up. Until now, Clearview AI has managed to keep its operations under wraps, quietly partnering with 600 law enforcement agencies. 

By taking the photo of one person and submitting it into the Clearview software, Clearview spits out tens of hundreds of pictures of that same person from all over the web. Not only are images exposed, but the information about where they were taken, which can lead to discovering mass amounts of data on one person. 

For example, this software was able to find a murder suspect just by their face showing up in a mirror reflection of another person’s gym photo. 

The company is being questioned for serious privacy risk concerns. Not only are millions of people’s faces stored on this software without their knowledge, but the chances of this software being used for unlawful purposes are incredibly high.

The NYT also released that the software pairs with augmented reality glasses; someone could take a walk down a busy street and identify every person they passed, including addresses, age, etc. 

Many services prohibit people from scraping user’s images, including Facebook or Twitter. However, Clearview has violated said terms. When asked about its Facebook violation, the CEO, Mr. Ton-That disregarded, saying everybody does it. 

As mentioned, hundreds of police agencies in both the U.S and Canada allegedly have been using Clearview’s software to solve crimes since February of 2019. However, a Buzzfeed article has just revealed Clearview’s claim about helping to solve a 2019 subway terrorist threat is not real. The incident was a selling point for the facial recognition company to partner with hundreds of law enforcement across the U.S. The NYPD has claimed they were not involved at all. 

This company has introduced a dangerous tool into the world, and there seems to be no coming back. While it has great potential to help solve serious criminal cases, the risk for citizens is astronomical. 

Microsoft at the front of facial recognition protection

To combat privacy violations, similar to the concerns brought forward with Clearview AI, cities like San Fransisco have recently banned facial recognition technologies, fearing a privacy invasion. 

Appearing in front of Washington State Senate, two Microsoft employees sponsored two proposed bills supporting the regulation of facial recognition technologies. Rather than banning facial recognition, these bills look to place restrictions and requirements onto the technology owners.

Despite Microsoft offering facial recognition as a service, its president Brad Smith called for regulating facial recognition technologies in 2018.

Last year, similar bills, drafted by Microsoft, made it through Washington Senate. However, those did not go forward as the House made changes that Microsoft opposed. The amendments by the House included a certification that the technology worked for all skin tones and genders.

The first of these new Washington Bill’s looks similar to the California Consumer Privacy Act, which Microsoft has stated it complies with. This bill also requires companies to inform their customers when facial recognition is being used. The companies would be unable to add a person’s face to their database without direct consent.

The second bill has been proposed by Joseph Nguyen, who is both a state senator and a program manager at Microsoft. This proposed bill focuses on government use of facial recognition technology. 

A section of the second bill includes requiring that law enforcement agencies must have a warrant before using the technology for surveillance. This requirement has been met with heat from specific law enforcement, saying that people don’t have an expectation of privacy in public; thus, the demand for a warrant was unnecessary. 

Safari exposed as a danger to user privacy.

About data tracking, Google’s Information Security team has released a report detailing several security issues in the design of Apple’s Safari Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP). 

ITP is used to protect users from tracking across the web by preventing third-party affiliated websites from receiving information that would allow identifying the user. The report lists two of ITP’s main functionalities:

  • Establishing an on-device list of prevalent domains based on the user’s web traffic
  • Applying privacy restrictions to cross-site requests to domains designated as prevalent

The report, created by Google researchers Artur Janc, Krzysztof Kotowicz, Lucas Weichselbaum, and Roberto Clapis, reported five different attacks that exploit the ITP’s design. These attacks are: 

  • Revealing domains on the ITP list
  • Identifying individual visited websites
  • Creating a persistent fingerprint via ITP pinning
  • Forcing a domain onto the ITP list
  • Cross-site search attacks using ITP

(Source)

Even so, the advised ‘workarounds’ given in the report “will not address the underlying problem.” 

Most interesting coming from the report is that in trying to address privacy issues, Apple’s Safari created more significant privacy issues.

As facial recognition continues to appear in our daily lives, recognizing and educating on the implications these technologies will have is critical to how we move forward as an information-protected society.

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