Facial recognition pioneer worried his technology ‘robs everyone of anonymity’

By Scott Kaufman
Sunday, May 18, 2014 12:44 EDT
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U.S. blogger Robert Scoble presents the Google Glass at a conference on April 24, 2013. Image via AFP.
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Joseph Atick, one of the pioneers of facial recognition software, told the New York Times that he was increasingly concerned that his technology is “basically robbing everyone of their anonymity.”

In a profile of him by Natasha Singer, Dr. Atick said that he was worried, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revealations, that governments could acquire access to biometric databases that would allow them to identify and track citizens in a way that would inhibit how they behave outside of their homes.

He noted that he is less concerned with government agencies that use facial recognition for specific and transparent purposes, and gave the example of the Department of Motor Vehicles using biometric data to prevent duplicate or fraudulent licenses from being produced.

What worries Dr. Atick are new applications like NameTag, which is bundled with Google Glass and allows wearers to identify strangers simply by looking at them. With a glance, anyone could access the name, occupation, and information shared publicly on Facebook. “We are basically allowing our fellow citizens to surveil us,” Dr. Atick told the Times.

Unlike other unique identifiers — like fingerprints — facial recognition can be used at a distance and without the knowledge of the person being identified. There are currently no specific federal guidelines on the use or storage of biometric data, which has led Dr. Atick and others to push the industry to adopt, voluntarily, a code of conduct.

“I think that the industry has to own up,” he told Singer. “If we do not step up to the plate and accept responsibility, there could be unexpected apps and consequences.”

He attempted to a address this at a recent conference hosted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but was disappointed to see few of the industry’s big players represented there.

“Where is Google? Where is Facebook?” he asked the attendees.

“Here,” replied a single voice in the auditorium.

Scott Kaufman
Scott Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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