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Face recognition software at businesses raising privacy, safety concerns

April 16, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's Friday night, you walk into a new bar. They check your I.D., but that's not all they may be checking. A growing number of businesses are setting up cameras linked to facial recognition software.

It's not just bars. Some malls are also testing the technology.

"It's helpful to businesses who want to know who their customers are," said Rafe Needleman, CNET.com's editor-at-large. "They will recognize your age or your gender, so if you walk up to a display wall at a retail establishment or mall ? and if you're a mid-40s White guy, maybe they'll give you an ad for a BMW. If you're a woman, 20s, maybe you'll get an ad for something else."

Experts think it's only a matter of time before stores start using technology that not only recognizes you, but tracks your spending habits, too.

"When you walk in a store, it might know who you are just when you walk in and give you deals based on your past purchases," Needleman said.

Privacy is one of the biggest concerns the Federal Trade Commission has with this technology. A recent study at Carnegie Mellon University illustrates why.

Mark Eichorn of the FTC says they took photos from a dating website where people were anonymous or using pseudonyms, and they also got information from a social networking site where they had in the people's real names. Using facial recognition technology, they were able to identify a lot of those users who were anonymous on the dating site.

Some bars feed information mined from facial recognition software to consumer sites like SceneTap, a company that collects real-time data from bars.

"What's being used right now are apps that will look at a biz - say a bar - and see how many men versus women there are, or their ages, so you can see what the scene is like at the bar," Needleman said.

It's not just a privacy issue, but a safety issue as well. The FTC is worried about where the technology can take us.

"Is it a notice and consent model like we have online? Are there places it shouldn't be permitted, like in bathrooms?" Eichorn said.

Until it's regulated, concerns over biometric identification sound more like reality than sci-fi.

"It's not out of the question that 10 years from now we'll walk down the street and people will be wearing camouflage so they're not picked up by facial recognition trackers all over the place," Needleman said.

The FTC said they're concerned with numerous other privacy aspects, like using the technology to gauge a consumer's emotional reaction to ad without their permission, for example.

The FTC is currently soliciting feedback to help put together recommendations for businesses to follow.


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