Facebook to be sued over ‘Orwellian’ spy software

New computer programs that automatically recognise people in photos are worrying privacy campaigners, who say the technology could become a tool of oppression.

Tagging friends manually in Facebook photographs can be a bore, especially for people who are trigger-happy with their cameras. So the world’s most popular social networking site introduced a new feature: a computer programme that can gather information about people’s faces and recognise them automatically in new pictures – a useful time-saver.

This is just one use of an increasingly popular technology. Face recognition is now being used for security – to unlock some Android phones, for example. Another smartphone app uses face recognition with cameras in clubs and bars to tell potential customers the average age of the people inside – and how many of them are girls. Special face-scanning electronic billboards will be appearing this month in several major cities. They will analyse the faces of passers-by to decide which sort of advert they should be shown, based on age, gender and attention levels.

For business leaders, this sort of approach has a lot of potential. But the rapid development of the technology has campaigners worried. As a recent experiment showed, it is extremely easy, once you plug someone’s face into a facial recognition programme, to find out much more about them than their age. Comparing facial data to information online could give you someone’s full identity, hobbies, credit rating and perhaps even home address. That information, captured by a camera inside a billboard, could be beamed anywhere.

In principle, campaigners say, we are now getting close to a world were computer programs can use the CCTV cameras scattered around cities to track all of us wherever we go. It is no surprise then that among the most enthusiastic customers for face recognition programmes are police forces.

A small backlash is already beginning. Officials in Germany are now preparing to take Facebook to court, accusing it of breaking the law by failing to tell users clearly when it began gathering facial recognition information earlier this year.

Face off

Are such privacy worries just paranoia? The internet means we all now leave huge trails of data behind us whatever we do online – but that data is not used to harm us. By and large, it makes life better (or at least makes for more interesting adverts). Face recognition is just the same thing transferred to the real world. It could also have really useful applications like identifying criminals or finding lost children.

Face recognition is a step too far, campaigners reply. It could strip us of the anonymity we enjoy in crowds – as part of protests for example. It puts too powerful a tool into the hands of governments and police, a tool that could one day be used to destroy personal freedom.

You Decide

  1. Is facial recognition technology exciting, frightening or both?
  2. If police could track everyone, all the time, and see what everyone was doing, crime rates might go down to almost zero. Would that achievement be worth the price?

Activities

  1. Write a science fiction story about a society of the future in which face recognition technology is commonplace. How might it affect everyday life?
  2. List some of the kinds of information someone could find out about you by looking at your online profiles and other public sources of information. Is this people should worry about?

Some People Say...

“There will be no room for privacy in the societies of the future.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is face recognition just appearing now? How hard can it be?
Surprisingly hard. Human brains are incredibly good at it, but we have evolved to recognise faces over thousands of years. There is actually a neurological condition called prosopagnosia in which our biological face recognition systems get turned off.
What happens then?
Recognising people becomes difficult or even impossible. It’s a real problem.
What does it mean to say face recognition programmes are Orwellian?
In his famous novel 1984, George Orwell imagined a totalitarian world in which everyone was under surveillance all the time. The slogan printed on walls and propaganda posters was: ‘Big Brother is watching you!’

Word Watch

Android
An operating system for mobile phones and tablet computers. It was developed by Google. The word ‘android’ itself means a robot that looks like a human.
A recent experiment
Research conducted by Professor Alessandro Acquisti at Carnegie Mellon University.
Facial data
Computers recognise faces by comparing a certain number of key measurements, like the distance between the eyes and the nose. When a computer programme has this information about you (which gets more accurate the more photos the computer has to work with) it can recognise you in new images.
CCTV
Closed Circuit Television, used to record surveillance images of people in public places. The record for most cameras per person is held by the UK.

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