Thursday, August 2, 2018

My Face is Personally Identifiable Information


Facial recognition technology used to be so adorable. When I wrote about it 7 years ago, the facial recognition technology in iPhoto was finding faces in shrubbery, but was also good enough to accurately see family resemblances in faces carved into a wall. Now, Apple thinks it's good enough to use for biometric logins, bragging that "your face is your password".

I think this will be my new password:


The ACLU is worried about the civil liberty implications of facial recognition and the machine learning technology that underlies it. I'm worried too, but for completely different reasons. The ACLU has been generating a lot of press as they articulate their worries - that facial recognition is unreliable, that it's tainted by the bias inherent in its training data, and that it will be used by governments as a tool of oppression. But I think those worries are short-sighted. I'm worried that facial recognition will be extremely accurate, that its training data will be complete and thus unbiased, and that everyone will be using it everywhere on everyone else and even an oppressive government will be powerless to preserve our meager shreds of privacy.

We certainly need to be aware of the ways in which our biases can infect the tools we build, but the ACLU's argument against facial recognition invites the conclusion that things will be just peachy if only facial recognition were accurate and unbiased. Unfortunately, it will be. You don't have to read Cory Doctorow's novels to imagine a dystopia built on facial recognition. The progression of  technology is such that multiple face recognizer networks could soon be observing us where ever we go in the physical world - the same way that we're recognized at every site on the internet via web beacons, web profilers and other spyware.

The problem with having your face as your password is that you can't keep your face secret. Faces aren't meant to be secret. Our faces co-evolved with our brains to be individually recognizable; evidently, having an identity confers a survival advantage. Our societies are deeply structured around our ability to recognize other people by their faces. We even put faces on our money!

Facial recognition is not new at all, but we need to understand the ways in which machines doing the recognizing will change the fabric of our societies. Let's assume that the machines will be really good at it. What's different?

For many applications, the machine will be doing things that people already do. Putting a face-recognizing camera on your front door is just doing what you'd do yourself in deciding whether to open it. Maybe using facial recognition in place of a paper driver's license or passport would improve upon the performance of a TSA agent squinting at that awful 5-year-old photo of you. What's really transformative is the connectivity. That front-door camera will talk to Fedex's registry of delivery people. When you use your face at your polling place, the bureau of elections will make sure you don't vote anywhere else that day. And the ID-check that proves you're old enough to buy cigarettes will update your medical records. What used to identify you locally can now identify you globally.

The reason that face-identity is so scary is that it's a type of identifier that has never existed before. It's globally unique, but it doesn't require a central registry to be used. It's public, easily collected and you can't remove it. It's as if we all had to tattoo our prisoner social security numbers on our foreheads! Facial profiles can be transmitted around the world, and used to index ALL THE DATABASEZ!

We can't stop facial recognition technology any more than we can reverse global warming, but we can start preparing today. We need to start by treating facial profiles and photographs as personally identifiable information. We have some privacy laws that cover so-called "PII", and we need to start applying them to photographs and facial recognition profiles.  We can also impose strict liability for the misuse of biased inaccurate facial recognition; slowing down the adoption of facial recognition technology will give our society a chance to adjust to its consequences.

Oh, and maybe Denmark's new law against niqabs violates GDPR?

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