Does facial recognition invade your privacy?

Melissa Ngo

As with other biometrics, the implementation of face recognition technologies has raised concerns about protecting the privacy of citizens. GCN interviewed Melissa Ngo about these concerns. Ngo is director of the Identification and Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPIC is a public-interest research center focusing on civil-liberties issues.

GCN: Are there any uses of face recognition technologies that you're not concerned about?

Ngo: If it is voluntary ' and it has to be truly voluntary, not that fake kind where they say you have a choice and you really don't because you'll lose your job.

GCN: What about situations of public surveillance? Do individuals have a right to privacy when they're in public?


Ngo: You do have a right to privacy in public spaces. For example, there's the Video Voyeurism Privacy Act in the United States. [The act makes it a crime to photograph or film 'private parts' of a person without their consent.]

GCN: What about a police officer photographing people in a public place?


Ngo: Once you start photographing people at random because you believe they might be a terrorist, then there's the question of whether you as a government employee are imposing on people and creating a climate of fear.

GCN: What if the surveillance is nonintrusive, such as with the cameras up on a building?

Ngo: Then it's worse, because you don't know you're being watched. People act differently when they know they're being watched and judged. If you're in Washington, D.C., for example, there are some cameras that have signs, but there are a lot of cameras that don't have them.

GCN: Are there laws governing how government agencies can do surveillance and whether they have to post signs?


Ngo: That's left up to the localities. With Washington, D.C., they have certain restrictions on when the city can put up cameras and what kind of signage there must be.

GCN: Do federal agencies pay any attention to local policies?

Ngo: That's a good question. It's very difficult to find out what the regulations are for federal video systems. We've done Freedom of Information Act requests. We've asked just as a member of the public. What are the regulations? What are we supposed to know? What are our rights? It's very difficult to find the answers.

GCN: Has public surveillance been growing?

Ngo: Surveillance technologies have been growing. They're getting cheaper. [Cameras are] getting smaller, so it's easier to hide them. Think about it. Twenty years ago you could see any camera because they were huge. But now you can have them in pens. You can have them in your cell phone. That makes it a lot easier to use them as a surveillance technology.

GCN: Is face recognition being implemented more broadly?

Ngo: I don't know just how many places are using it. There have been attempts to use this kind of general surveillance technology. They tried it at the Super Bowl in 2001, and it just didn't work. You can't just pan a crowd and think that you'll find who you're looking for. For one thing, the person could be wearing a hat. It would be a really bad day for our country if all of a sudden wearing a hat made you suspicious.

It's not about what the technology can or can't do. It's about how you use it. It's about the regulations and the laws to protect people from being harassed. However good a technology is, the people implementing it are human. They make human errors, whether deliberately or accidentally. These errors can lead to horrible situations. Cases of mistaken identity have led to problems in the past.

GCN: Is there any appropriate use for face recognition?

Ngo: It has to be truly voluntary, and it has to be used with specific guidelines. [Otherwise] it gets to a situation where it's not that they have to prove you're guilty but that you have to prove you're innocent, and that is the exact reverse of the foundation of our legal system.

GCN: Do we need more legislation to protect privacy in this area?

Ngo: You can't have too much privacy legislation because there are always exceptions for true law enforcement needs. We need strong protections for people because they shouldn't have to prove they are innocent. You shouldn't have to walk through your life proving you are innocent.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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