Online Reputation Management Blog

Facial Recognition Technology and Online Privacy


Facial recognition technology refers to computer-based systems that are able to automatically detect and identify human faces.  These systems utilize a complex facial recognition algorithm. First, the facial recognition system is able to recognize a human face and isolate the face from the rest of the photograph.  The technology is able to distinguish features such as the distance between the eyes, the shape of cheek bones, nose, mouth or chin and compare these nodal points from a computerized database of pictures to find a match.  Image quality, lighting conditions and the distance and angle of the photograph will all affect the accuracy of the match, however technology is improving rapidly to compensate for these limiting factors. 


The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint, joined by the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recommending an investigation of Facebook’s privacy practices, in particular prohibiting the collection of users’ biometric data without affirmative opt-in consent.  With more than 750 million active users, Facebook is the most popular social network in history.  Facebook has also amassed the largest collection of photographs in the history of the world – 60 billion photographs.


For privacy advocates the problem is obvious. With 71% of US adults registered as Facebook users sharing more personal information in one place than at any time in history, an unparalleled repository of digital images, the technology to identify users (with or without their permission) and an estimated pre-IPO valuation of $100 billion, Facebook is the most powerful company in the world.


It was Facebook’s Tag Suggestion tool that got the Palo Alto company in some recent trouble.  The technology scans newly uploaded photos, searches images that have been previously uploaded to the site, then attempts to match faces and suggest name tags. When a match is made, Facebook alerts the person uploading the photos and invites them to "tag," or identify, the person in the photo.  It’s getting tougher to keep those embarrassing bachelor party pictures a secret from your wife.


A research team at Carnegie Mellon University recently published a study whereby they were able to identify individuals on a popular online dating site where members protect their privacy through pseudonyms. In a second experiment, they identified students walking on campus — based on their profile photos on Facebook. In a third experiment, the research team predicted personal interests and, in some cases, even the Social Security numbers of the students, beginning with only a photo of their faces.


As facial recognition technology collides with social media, it is going to take a lot of education and maybe even regulation to protect our online privacy in the 21st century.