We’ve all done it at one point or another, posting our pictures of ourselves, family and friends on websites and social network portals such as Facebook. Whether it be submitting your picture to output a cartoon or aged version of yourself, or uploading your personal snapshots to Facebook, marketing campaigns are aggressively being pushed by digital media corporations to obtain your facial biometrics. However, most people are completely unaware of the deceptive nature of these campaigns and their intentions.
Opponents to facial recognition technology are well aware that its acceptance and integration within society are growing in combination with wider use of video surveillance, which is likely to grow increasingly invasive over time. Once installed, this kind of a surveillance system rarely remains confined to its original purpose. New ways of applying the technology are leading to abuse as authorities or operators find them to be an irresistible expansion of their power. Ultimately, the privacy of citizens will suffer another blow. The threat is that widespread surveillance will change the character, feel, and quality of our lives.
The Buzzing Social Network Giants Among Us
Online social networking has revolutionized the way the under-40 crowd communicate and share information with one another. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become the preferred way of communicating for many people around the world.
According to a study by InSites Consulting, 72 percent of Internet users worldwide are members of at least one social network, which translates to 940 million people globally.
Eastern Europe and Asia are the regions with the lowest social networking participation (4 out of 10), while South America has the highest usage in terms of percentage (95%). Brits mostly visit Facebook (50%), followed by Twitter (42%). Worldwide, Facebook remains the most popular social network (51% use Facebook), followed by MySpace (20%) and Twitter (17%).
It is quite evident that a monopoly in social networking has formed and little is likely to change in the next year. “It is becoming difficult for new social sites to recruit members, said Steven Van Belleghem, Managing Partner of InSites Consulting. “The majority of surfers are happy with their current situation and do not want to become members of a new platform.”
Media and technology experts estimate that 20% or more of the world’s population will be using social networking by 2011. It also means that as older members age, they will post new updated pictures of themselves as they expand their activity and friendships. People average almost 200 friends (global average) on Facebook meaning that the connections within Facebook itself could span around the world with a link to each and every person registered.
Is Big Brother Using The Internet
To Extract Your Biometrics?
Technology expert Ivan Abreu says that Facebook and Google have strong ties to lettered agencies within the U.S. government. “Every picture that you upload to Facebook or Google becomes the property of the government and they can do as they wish with that property” said Abreu. Facebook’s terms and conditions confirm that the company can do as they wish with any personal photos or information of any user at their discretion.
Since December 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency has been using Facebook.com, to recruit potential employees into its National Clandestine Service.
A major source of funding into Facebook ($US12.7 million) came from the venture capital firm Accel Partners. Its manager James Breyer was formerly chairman of the National Venture Capital Association, and served on the board with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999. One of the company’s key areas of expertise are in “data mining technologies”.
Dr. Anita Jones served on In-Q-Tel’s board, and had been director of Defence Research and Engineering for the US Department of Defence. She was also an adviser to the Secretary of Defence and overseeing the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for high-tech, high-end development.
It was when a journalist lifted the lid on the DARPA’s Information Awareness Office that the public began to show concern at its information mining projects of which biometric facial recognition was a key component.
Wikipedia’s IAO page says: “the IAO has the stated mission to gather as much information as possible about everyone, in a centralised location, for easy perusal by the United States government, including (though not limited to) internet activity, credit card purchase histories, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, medical records, educational transcripts, driver’s licenses, utility bills, tax returns, and any other available data.”.
According to Abreu, a confidential source has explained some of the technology behind the social network giant which he reiterated, “not only can they scan items on your Facebook page, but their facial recognition and biometric applications can scan every single photograph within Facebook (billions of images) in real-time…that’s the kind of advanced technology and computing power they operate.”
The technological capabilities of government agencies have long been known to far exceed even the most advanced public user. Abreu’s source identified the facial biometric technology as ‘beyond state of the art’. “Regardless of whether it is your profile or a front shot, if your facial biometric signature is anywhere on their database and they have a reference screen capture from a video or even a faxed copy of your photograph, they can retrieve a match with almost 90% accuracy,” added Abreu.
Abreu disclosed that access to such images are not solely confined to Facebook. The technology can breach the security of any website and can simultaneously scan and download images it has been programmed to retrieve based on a predefined sequence of algorithmic biometric markers.
According to Abreu, the success and massive marketing strategies by social networking portals have made facial recognition technology that much more attractive to governments. “This technology has proliferated because of public compliance and willful disclosure of personal information.” He stated that there are dozens of other companies in addition to Facebook that log and store your information indefinitely.
In late 2009, Google launched a new mobile search technology called Google Goggles that allows users to submit pictures rather that keywords as queries. Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search products and user experience explained that Google has been focusing on four aspects of search: modes, media, language, and personalization. New modes of searching, such as voice-driven and image-driven search, represent a major new commitment for Google, an empire built-on keyword search ads.
Google VP of engineering Vic Gundotra said that Google Goggles represents the beginning of Google’s journey into computer vision. The service is being launched in Google Labs because it’s experimental and can only recognize certain objects. Google has the capability to do facial recognition, said Gundotra, but has decided to delay implementing it to mull the privacy implications.
Other interactive internet giants such as InterActive Corp who own subsidiary branches such as Mindspark and Match.com are prime portals to access personal images and information. For example myWebFace is downloaded as a toolbar for your browser and it enables you to create an “online cartoon avatar by choosing from a huge selection of facial features, characteristics and accessories,” as stated in their license agreement. They then provide you with the opportunity to use your myWebFace cartoon for your Facebook profile or other social networks.
Another myWebFace invention oldyourself.com digitizes and ages any portrait image to simulate 20 years in the future, thus an an older version of yourself. The site uses clever tactics such as applying the software to age celebrities to attract more users.
“Users flock to such sites,” stated Brent Kane who is a former technology officer and worked as a interactive media liaison in Canada, Australia and the United States. “They heavily advertise these types of sites to attract as many users as possible within a short period of time,” he added.
A review of the oldyourself.com website proved Kane’s assertion correct. On July 24th, 2010 this author tracked the website’s traffic through a Facebook widget they had integrated on the landing page of the website. The Facebook “Likes” went from just a few to just over 28,000 “Likes” in a matter of hours suggesting the advertising load was extremely high. Interestingly enough, there was no defined page to be found on Facebook itself.
“Users who download these tool bars are completely oblivious to the fact that they are being tracked and traced regardless of what is said in the license agreements,” said Kane.
Emails were sent to Mindspark to clarify their position regarding these assertions, however responses were never received. “The goals of such well invested websites appear quite innocent and entertaining to the average user, however behind the scenes, images are tracked, stored and logged into massive data mining projects specifically for private information such as email and IP addresses for future use,” concluded Kane.
FACEinHOLE uses similar methods to entice users to upload photos of themselves for integration into specific scenarios. Want to look like a bodybuilder, model or actor? Faceinhole.com has thousands of scenarios to attract unsuspecting users to submit their personal photos. Registrants use an upload interface (instead of a browser intergrated toolbar) to submit their photos.
Ironically, on their legal note page, they state “FACEinHOLE.com will investigate notices of copyright infringement and take appropriate actions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” Well this author would be very curious to inquire if FACEinHOLE requested permission from George Bush, Tony Blair, Leonardo Dicaprio and Zinedine Zidane before duplicating and storing digital images of these figures in their media page.
Video games are other effective gateways that corporations are using to biometrically record younger generations. Want a whole generation of teens to be scanned? Why not incorporate facial recognition and biometrics in video games. That’s exactly what both Xbox and Playstation have done.
Microsoft’s Project Natal is delivering a new addon to the XBox gaming system that maps the exacts position of your hands, your fingers, your feet, your face, your nose, everything in a 3D map. It recognizes voice and faces and supports complex video chat for a complete interactive experience. Maybe too interactive, because in an Orwellian overstep, Microsoft has included face recognition technology which will allow you to use the meat, sinew and cartilage on the front of your head too as your password to log in to your Live account.
Natal isn’t just for gaming: As Microsoft starts to push the Xbox 360 as the home entertainment mega-hub, you’ll be able to use Natal to flick through your films and songs and use voice recognition to issue commands.
Sony Europe’s Head of Developer Services, Kish Hirani, said the Playstation Eye will have the ability to “detect gender and even the age of the face, separate facial features such as the nose, eyes and ears, and even detect whether you’re smiling or not.”
And taking a page from Microsoft’s Natal platform, Hirani said the Eye will also support “skeleton tracking.”
Of course millions of teens and young adults will jump at the chance of owning and scanning every segment of their body to play the next generation of video games. Unfortunately, once the images are uploaded online, their identities will forever be owned by nefarious levels of government.
Trust is a Wonderful Thing Until It’s Broken
“A digital divide exits between how youth perceive network privacy and how the older generation of managers and executives perceive it,” says Dr. Levin, co-author of the study, The Next Digital Divide: Online Social Network Privacy. “Young people believe that information shared with their personal social networks is considered private as long as its dissemination is limited to their social network. Organizations, on the other hand, don’t recognize this notion of network privacy. They believe that any information posted online is public and deserves no protection.”
The study found that while online social networkers are comfortable posting large amounts of personal and private information, they do so differentiating between destinations for that information. Friends, family and work are three separate networks in their minds. Young people are concerned that their personal information while freely shared within their network of friends may end up in the hands of others.
Indeed, facial recognition technology is being utilized on the internet as we speak, however to what extent is still not clear. The use of facial recognition in public places like airports depends on widespread video monitoring, an intrusive form of surveillance that can record in graphic detail personal and private behavior. And experience tells us that video monitoring will be misused. Video camera systems are operated by humans, after all, who bring to the job all their existing prejudices and biases. In Great Britain, for example, which has experimented with the widespread installation of closed circuit video cameras in public places, camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color, and the mostly male operators frequently focus voyeuristically on women.
An ACLU special report highlighted an investigation by the Detroit Free Press which showed the kind of abuses that can happen when police use video surveillance. Looking at how a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used, the newspaper found that officers had used it to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists, track estranged spouses – even to intimidate political opponents. The unavoidable truth is that the more people who have access to a database, the more likely that there will be abuse.
Facial recognition is especially subject to abuse because it can be used in a passive way that doesn’t require the knowledge, consent, or participation of the subject. It’s possible to put a camera up anywhere and train it on people; modern cameras can easily view faces from over 100 yards away. People act differently when they are being watched, and have the right to know if their movements and identities are being captured.
Two things must be understood by mass populations before any further cooperation in facial recognition technology. The first is to validate if the technology is effective for its intended purpose. The second is whether the technology violates the appropriate balance between security and liberty. Unfortunately, facial recognition fails on both counts: because it doesn’t work reliably, it won’t significantly protect our security – but it would pose a significant threat to our privacy.
So why should the public continue to participate or subject themselves to such invasive technologies? They shouldn’t. Stop uploading, stop sharing, stop scanning, stop distributing personal images throughout the internet. They are being used against us and any further compliance in this charade will only lead to new levels of manipulation and control by the powers that be.
If we keep our images personal and inaccessible to others, and if we prevent any part of our bodies from being scanned, the chances of exposing our unique biometrics will be dramatically reduced. It’s already too easy for them….don’t make it easier!
Kelley Bergman is a media consultant, critic and geopolitical investigator. She has worked as a journalist and writer, specializing in geostrategic issues around the globe.