Image 01 Image 03

Facial recognition technologies almost unrecognizable

Facial recognition technologies almost unrecognizable

One of my former students has an excellent Op-ed in The NY Times.


Defenders of this technology will say that no one has a legitimate expectation of privacy in public. But as surveillance technology improves, the distinction between public spaces and private spaces becomes less meaningful. There is a vast difference between a law enforcement officer’s sifting through thousands of hours of video footage in search of a person of interest, and his using software to instantly locate that person anywhere, at any time.

A person in public may have no reasonable expectation of privacy at any given moment, but he certainly has a reasonable expectation that the totality of his movements will not be effortlessly tracked and analyzed by law enforcement without probable cause. Such tracking, as the federal appellate judge Douglas H. Ginsburg once ruled, impermissibly “reveals an intimate picture of the subject’s life that he expects no one to have — short perhaps of his wife.”

Before the advent of these new technologies, time and effort created effective barriers to surveillance abuse. But those barriers are now being removed. They must be rebuilt in the law.

Two policies are necessary. First, facial-recognition databases should be populated only with images of known terrorists and convicted felons. Driver’s license photos and other images of “ordinary” people should never be included in a facial-recognition database without the knowledge and consent of the public.

Second, access to databases should be limited and monitored. Officers should be given access only after a court grants a warrant. The access should be tracked and audited. The authorities should have to publicly report what databases are being mined and provide aggregate numbers on how often they are used.

We cannot leave it to law enforcement agencies to determine, behind closed doors, how these databases are used. With the right safeguards, facial-recognition technology can be employed effectively without sacrificing essential liberties.


Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.


First, facial-recognition databases should be populated only with images of known terrorists and convicted felons.

I know this is a stupid question, when dealing with a “Big Brother” government, but why would ordinary, law abiding citizens even be in the database? If a person does something illegal, that warrants them being in the database, add them when that happens, not before.

Why clutter up the system with irrelevant data?

    You assume that systems get cluttered with irrelevant data. When I have 2 TERAbytes of storage on my home computer, you can be damn sure that there is enough storage space in larger government systems to store whatever amount of data they wish to store.

    Secondly, it is “Big Brother” we’re talking about, so yes, unless we have some legal transparency/auditing/limits on database use, the system WILL be abused (since human nature is what it is).

    So, in summation, as you yourself have stated it was a stupid question….Why ask why? 🙂

Outstanding article and suggested limitations on database use by your former student professor!

Insufficiently Sensitive | August 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Precisely what the ‘Occupiers’ Guy Fawkes masks have the ability to defeat. Though there are any number of public figures whose phizzes should eagerly be taken up by hordes of screaming protesters. Any self-respecting street rioter will shortly collect a fine assortment of faces for the software to recognize – local chiefs of police being likely models.

Last week my spouse had an appointment with a doctor that practices in a local doctor’s office one day a week. When we got there, we were given a bunch of forms to fill out, which is not unusual (medical history, etc.) but these were different.

On one form it said that in order to “comply” with the incoming health care laws, certain new information must be given. One form was a release for taking blood for the purpose of drug testing if medications were necessary. My spouse refused to sign that, not because of drug use, but the fact that in order to get a Rx it was a requirement.

The other problem was a mug shot.

Yeah, that’s right, photographs were taken just like mug shots. When questioned about it, we were told that it was part of the new health care law requirements.

So be advised; this will happen to others. You have the right to refuse any medical procedure (blood testing for drugs in order to be prescribed medication like a simple antibiotic) that you feel is unnecessary along with the right to refuse to have your mug shot taken.

You also need to know if the medical office is putting your records on the internet. A freshman computer technology student can hack into those records with such ease it would boggle your mind.

This was in Texas, boys and girls. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact the doctor who owned the offices is Canadian and supports Obamacare.

    snopercod in reply to retire05. | August 31, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    The “mug shot” is required by the Red Flag Identity Theft Rule created by the Federal Trade Commission. It’s really a logical stretch, but the FTC says that since doctors and dentists are “extending you credit”, they have to prove you are who you say you are.

      retire05 in reply to snopercod. | August 31, 2013 at 2:59 pm

      So because we paid for the services at POS (point of sale), did the doctor’s office take the mug hot illegally? We were told it was due to Obamacare, not because of any Red Flag law, which I noticed was put into place after the Marxist in Chief took over.

      We were also told that payment was required BEFORE we saw the doctor (which means you pay in advance for services not yet rendered) so tell me, what would that doctor’s office do if someone didn’t have a photo I.D.? Remember, the rain man, Eric Holder, is claiming there are people in Texas without photo I.D. so it is “racist” (or something) to require that.

Yet it is amazing that our nations high regard and commitment to issues of privacy are extensive enough to justify abortion.

Minnesota driver’s licenses have the driver’s photo on them, supposedly to identify a person in a car wreck and to confirm that a person matches up with the driver’s license card.

We’ve had at least one case where many police officers looked up the personal information, etc…, of a young cute “hotty,” who also was a police officer, of which all such access was unauthorized. Military IDs have photos on them, college IDs have photos on them, some (Many?) companies have photo IDs. All of these can be gathered together, if not done so already, and used as the authorities wish unless there are real limits and boundaries put on them.

Orwell was right in more ways then he could have imagined.

    snopercod in reply to Doug Wright. | August 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Anyone can obtain a copy of anyone else’s Drivers License photo by contacting a private investigator and having a legitimate reason. I’ve done it.

images of “ordinary” people should never be included in a facial-recognition database without the knowledge and consent of the public.

First change “public” to “individual”.
Second, bar the use of “implied consent”.
Third, bar them from requiring this consent in order to receive needed services.
Fourth, violations should be felonies with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.

Privacy was once the right to be let alone. Now, it’s probable cause that you’re hiding something.

This is not just a problem with overzealous law enforcement or with ever-expanding government power. This is a problem of hyper-legalism (“expectation of privacy” in this case) replacing once common virtues like respect and common sense.

The recommended changes, though worthwhile, are mere drops in the bucket. They won’t even slow down the rush to catalog and index everything about everyone … just in case.

As some wise man observed in a debate over nuclear weapons, the question was developing and deploying them morally justifiable, there is never a choice about new technology.

One the capability is there, someone will do it. Strict rules against it generally only ensure that the very people we would least like in command of such systems will in fact be the few who control them.

David Drake already wrote about this Brave New World…

read it, then smash the next public camera you see.

I see several reasons to disagree with this editoral, and with the comments I read here.

The argument is that facial recognition software should be banned because it is too cheap and too easy.
Say what? Police saving time and money is a bad thing? High costs and manpower requirements do not prevent surveillance. They do, however, move it out of the hands of the public, making it exclusively the realm of the government. I’d prefer that the actions of police and other officials be just as trackable as those of private citizens. And that requires cheap and easy.

In addition, software has the benefit of having no personal, racial, or social biases – it’s just math.

The disadvantages of humans attempting to do facial recognition can be quite obvious. For example, during the Boston Bombing investigation, the users of Reddit attempted to identify the bombers. They quickly found two people, both of whom were completely innocent but were quickly subjected to harrassment and threats.

Why there is an objection to impartial, fast, cheap facial recognition software in favor of biased, slow, expensive humans I just do not understand.

@redc1c4 Instead of Drake’s dark future, I think David Brin is more likely to be accurate. Try
for some of his readings.

    Paul in reply to Toranth. | August 31, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Nice Straw man Toranth. The argument is NOT “Facial recognition is too cheap and too easy, therefore it should be banned”

    The argument, rather is, “Privacy matters, so we need to put in place legal limits on omnipresent database usage in government, so that constitutional limits are enforced.”

    Your straw man earns you a down thumb, btw.

      Toranth in reply to Paul. | August 31, 2013 at 10:51 am

      There is no straw man here, Paul, just the editorial itself.
      The piece starts with the Biometric Optical Surveillance System, and then proceeds to list several other ways that technology has improved. It then arrives at the following, directly quoted:

      “Before the advent of these new technologies, time and effort created effective barriers to surveillance abuse. But those barriers are now being removed. They must be rebuilt in the law.”

      Please tell me how this is a straw man, when it is directly stated in the editorial? Constitutional concerns are never raised. The database concerns are raised in the final two paragraphs, which are recommending legal restrictions the author feels should be put in place to replace the previous barriers of “time and effort.”

      New facial-recognition technology improvements or uses are mentioned in at least 7 different places, privacy once, and databases twice.

      If you disagree with what I’ve written, please address my argument. Making irrelevant and inaccurate attacks does nothing to advance discussion of this issue.
      If you feel that the true concern should be a wider issue of privacy-in-public or government abuse, then raise those issues seperately so your arguments can be discussed directly.

PersonFromPorlock | August 31, 2013 at 9:12 am

One thing we might do in a general way that would have specific benefits is to make preservation of the Constitution the *primary* function of all government agencies. As it is, there’s a duty to preserve and defend it as part of employees’ oath of office, but it gets swamped by pressures to ‘do the job’.

But make preserving the Constitution the primary job of every agency, and the same bureaucratic caution that makes agencies careless of transgressions in the name of efficiency will encourage constitutionality at the expense of ‘extreme’ mission accomplishment.

Midwest Rhino | August 31, 2013 at 10:32 am

In the old PI shows, the PI always had some “dick” friend in the department that would access private records for him. Of course he was always a good guy, and saved the day. The accessory was a “true blue cop”, or a hot romantic interest, only interested in the common good.

Hollywood misled us again. In the real world, good guys obey the rules, and lose to the bad guys that break them. Stringent rules will only impede the good, unless all the mechanics are in place to enact enforcement against the abusive thugs in the system.

The Lois Lerners must be prosecuted, but so far they are not. If NSA staff is checking on ex lovers without prosecution, you can bet there are many more spies like Snowden that choose to stay private. Security is a joke.

Facial recognition is just the newest form of info to be abused by criminals in government positions. Whether IRS, NSA, or a local cop, illegal access seems to never get punished, and IS institutionalized. The left DEPENDS on this for more nefarious motives. Change will not come easy.

We need standards on facial recognition, but keep using in good ways. Punish the abusers and control access, but take advantage of the technology. ID every illegal, track them to drug busts or human trafficking or sweat shops. Biometrics could immediately ID fraudulent voting. The left wants no voter ID, no use of biometrics on illegals.

“Two policies are necessary. First, facial-recognition databases should be populated only with images of known terrorists and convicted felons. Driver’s license photos and other images of “ordinary” people should never be included in a facial-recognition database without the knowledge and consent of the public.”

How about those who have arrest warrants? If someone is wanted for murder, even if they have not been convicted of anything, I would think we would want the cops to use this technology to track them down and take them into custody.

Maybe I’ll start wearing a burka in public, one of those black bags with the letterbox slit for the eyes.

As a couple of commenter’s have noted, this will occur much quick with private databases. I am sure casinos are already using this, as they should.

I live in an upper middle class town / neighborhood where security cameras are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Not only are individual houses installing them but the neighborhoods are banding together so they can record the choke points. Every car / license plate and most faces that come in our area are recorded. This includes not just location but the time, day or night. You could edit an entire movie with the amount of footage that is collected. 95% of the neighbors share e-mails making it very easy to find any witnesses once a crime has occurred.

I am not a lawyer, but the legal trick is that the cameras can record public spaces (the street) but must be located on private property. We have already caught two burglars red handed. The police have embraced it knowing that this will eventually deter criminals. They also have no real choice in the matter. If an entire neighborhood of affluent homeowners provide clear pictures, witnesses, times, car description and license plate numbers connected to a crime the cops are obliged to make the arrest. Facial recognition is the next tool to add and it is already like shooting fish in a barrel.

After the Zimmerman affair, the number of private camera networks will grow exponentially. I am sure suing neighborhood watches will become the next growth industry for lawyers. But here the system is completely passive and never sleeps. I wonder what side Trayvon Martin’s parents are on.

    I’m pretty sure most people already know that they might be filmed any time they’re out in public. It’s the pairing it up with a sophisticated facial recognition system and a database of all citizens, even those who have broken no laws, that creeps people out.

    I don’t really care (too much) that one of your pervy neighbors is filming me as I walk my dogs down Main Street. But I wouldn’t much like the idea that upon capturing my image, someone could instantly access my name, address and phone number, and all the tertiary data knowing those facts to leads them to (marital status, voter registration, previous addresses, a satellite pic of my home and how much it’s worth, what cars I drive, etc).

    You act like you think the only people using this are going to be on the side of the angels, and the only people who should be worried about it are bad guys, and that People In Authority® never misuse their power. I’m not so sure those are safe assumptions.

    But as I mentioned above, I’ll just throw a black bag with eye-slits in it over my head and cry “raaaaacist” should anyone ask me to unveil, so I’m not too worried 😉

      Prof. Woland in reply to Amy in FL. | September 1, 2013 at 3:01 pm


      A word of advice, Don’t walk into somebody’s house with a black bag over your head shouting racist slurs. There is a good chance you will be shot even if you are only there to fetch you dog after letting him take a dump in your neighbors yard. Ironically, one of the things that propelled us to pull together was a break in at a neighbors house when she was at home alone taking a shower. I am sure that if this pervert were caught with cameras and facial recognition software that he would have shrieked “racism”, but that is just par for the course. Even that does not work against a camera.

        “Don’t walk into somebody’s house with a black bag over your head shouting racist slurs.”

        And why on earth would you imagine me doing that?

        Good lord, not everyone is a criminal.

        And that’s my point: when people aren’t criminals, when they’re just ordinary law-abiding citizens, it doesn’t seem right to put their driver’s license photos and such into national facial recognition databases in case they are “future criminals”. Because that data WILL be misused and I don’t see how you can justify putting ordinary law-abiding citizens at such risk.

        “Trust Us — We’re The Authorities” carries less and less weight these days as a reason for ordinary citizens to put up with surrendering more and more of their freedoms.

“And why on earth would you imagine me doing that?”

Probably because that is what you just wrote. You would not have been the first person to have tried that.

Actually, I never said anything about a Government data base any more than I said anything about Government cameras. Even if the database is insufficient to get a match, every time a someone commits a crime on camera it can be permanently uploaded for future use. I think of all these stores that get flash mobbed. Most of the offenders will never be arrested let alone convicted but that does not mean that the owner of that store has to ever let them back in does it? How about bars, restaurants, casinos, etc.

As an employer, I would love to know what my future hires have lurking in their past. Some punk with a Guy Faulks mask, an authority problem, and a chip on his shoulder is the last person I want working for me. Do I have a right to hire whom I chose? I realize Eric Holder and his boss want us to not be able to use arrest records to screen potential hires. Why? Those committing crimes on camera are just people whom the cops never got around to arresting. What they do on camera speaks for its self. I believe the saying in Latin is, “Res Ipso Locutor”. If you want to hire them, go ahead but don’t say I did not warn you.

    “that is what you just wrote”

    No sir or madam, is it not.

    I proposed wearing a full burkha out in public, to foil the government’s latest mooted invasion of privacy and great big data-mining exercise.

    Only someone who thinks that every law-abiding citizen going about their lawful business on the streets must be supposed to be a criminal, or at the very least a potential future-criminal, would have read anything nefarious into my reluctance to have my every detail available to poorly-vetted strangers at the press of a button, just for the crime of appearing in public.

    Actually, I never said anything about a Government data base any more than I said anything about Government cameras.

    Hi there! This post and the article it’s based on are about both government and private cameras and government agents performing facial recognition scans based on government databases of law-abiding citizens’ images. In case you were confused as to why that’s what my comments were based around.

    I absolutely agree that employers should be free to hire whomever they want to. That’s not what this post (or my comments) were about, though. Cheers and good night!

“But as I mentioned above, I’ll just throw a black bag with eye-slits in it over my head and cry “raaaaacist””