EDITORIAL: Rein in facial recognition technology to protect privacy

SHARE EDITORIAL: Rein in facial recognition technology to protect privacy

Michelle Turner, general manager of security products for Nest Labs, talks about the facial recognition features of the Hello doorbell during an event Wednesday, , in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Celebrities have long bemoaned their lost ability to disappear into a crowd. The rest of us are on the brink of sharing that dismal feeling — without the glittery benefits of stardom — because of rapidly advancing facial recognition technology.

To avoid a world in which scanners constantly identify us and report on wherever we go — a political rally, an airport, a medical clinic, a counseling center — we must insist on strict legal protections. Illinois has imposed some good rules, but on a federal level there is almost nothing.


Already, apart from facial recognition technology, giant data brokers are assembling and selling dossiers that reveal where we live and work, what we buy, where we go, what we eat and which party’s ballot we take in primary elections.

“Biometric identifiers,” such as thumbprints, retina or iris scans and facial recognition, can whip up all this information about you in real time.  Moreover, facial recognition technology can do it surreptitiously from a distance. Hypothetically, anybody around you — including potential stalkers — could snap an image of your face and summon up your entire electronic profile. Your protective anonymity is gone.

The gazillions of personal photos users tag and upload to Facebook every day have created an enormous photo library that enables “deep learning” software to perfect facial recognition technology. The technology will only get better, and the secretive photo databases of individuals will only get larger. The information can be quietly sold to third parties, including foreign governments, whose intentions might be murky.

We’re heading toward a world in which facial recognition technology will identify you the moment you arrive at an airport or ring a doorbell. It will decide as you walk into a store whether you are a known shoplifter — a particular burden for African Americans, who get many more false positives. It has been used to see who shows up for church on Sunday. Baltimore police used facial recognition to identify who attended protests after the death of Freddy Gray in 2015. The Chicago Police Department has the ability to run facial recognition on mug shots, and the FBI can scan Illinois driver’s license records to get your photo.

Fortunately, Illinois is one of three states that has protections against the commercial misuse of the technology. The 2008 Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act says companies can’t gather and keep biometric records without prior notification and written permission. But federal laws are the only real solution. A Springfield law can’t protect an Illinoisan who travels out of state.

Safeguards in the use of the technology also need to be extended to police, who should be required to get a search warrant if they want to use facial recognition technology to identify an individual. Judges would permit them to use it to make arrests for serious crimes, but not to let a mayor know who is meeting with local journalists.

The recent massive Equifax leak reminds us how easily data can be stolen once it is collected and stored, and biometric information, which is reduced to code, is no exception. Last year in Cook County, L.A. Tan Enterprises agreed to pay $1.5 million after it allegedly sold to a software vendor in another state the fingerprint scans customers used to check in.

That biometric information will live on in a digital space, and the owners can’t control it, nor can they change their faces, short of plastic surgery. Once the data are online, they can be linked up with other leaked data, such as, for example, the home addresses, birth dates, phone numbers, ethnicity and political and religious leanings of 198 million citizens unwittingly exposed in June by a Republican National Committee marketing firm.

Facial recognition technology has obvious benefits. It can help you prove you are who you say you are. People have fun tagging photos on Facebook. Maybe you like the way it starts up the new iPhones without requiring a password. It could prove to be an enormously useful tool — legitimately.

But, as a matter of protecting our constitutional rights to privacy, Congress must establish limits and controls before all Americans become hapless cogs in a vast facial recognition system that watches, names and labels everyone.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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