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Camurati: Recognizing the dangers behind facial recognition

An Apple iPhone displaying the Facebook app's splash

An Apple iPhone displaying the Facebook app's splash screen in front of the login page in Washington, D.C. (May 10, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Minnesota’s Al Franken is worried about the faces on Facebook.

Actually, he’s concerned about the millions of faces identifiable on social media sites as well as the full face photos in government data bases and at your local warehouse store membership card.

Franken wants Congress to pass legislation to define and limit how government agencies and private companies use facial recognition technology. As of now, no federal laws address the subject.

At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy on July 16 he focused on Facebook’s latest feature that recognizes and tags friends in photos. Franken, criticized the Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy Rob Sherman and poked fun at his lack of knowledge about the site’s privacy settings and layout.

Google+ has a similar feature, but users must opt-in to be suggested for tagging; Facebook's feature, however, was (and probably will be again) automatic and not simple to opt-out of. Franken complained that it took six clicks to find a page in the privacy settings mentioning facial recognition.

Sherman said the social networking site has taken measures to limit the use of facial data so you would only be suggested to friends and not the guy who got you in the background of that group shot at the bar.

Near the end of their sparring match, Franken asked if Facebook would ever sell its face profiles or software to a third party. It took Sherman a moment to formulate a response, but the one he came up with didn't help his case.

"It's difficult to know what Facebook will look like in five or 10 years down the line, so it's hard to respond to that," he said.

That's the big question with facial recognition technology: What will happen next? A list of potential problems has been compiled , but no one seems to know how we can control our own image in cyberspace.

One major concern is that you can’t simply change your facial features like you can a password to protect your information. A study at Carnegie Mellon last year gave researchers the chance to play with some of the latest software. They were able to identify students on a campus from Facebook photos and, in time, get more information, like social security numbers and personal addresses.

Cameras in airports, malls, bars and many other businesses have been scanning faces for years, and the government has more than 40 organizations with the power to use the software.

There are a million reasons why the software would be beneficial if used properly and a million more about how dangerous it is to personal privacy. But without any laws to restrict certain aspects or outline proper usage, nothing can change.

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