Facial Recognition Privacy Issues Shouldn’t Make You Wary of Your Webcam

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Facial recognition privacy issues are inevitable as webcams get smarter.

The fact that your computer can recognize your face is pretty cool.

The fact that your friend’s computer can recognize your face should make you a little concerned.

The facial recognition technology behind both possibilities is now commercially available and being used as both a security device and a social networking tool…at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be used for.

Facial recognition privacy issues are no more urgent than other online security concerns such as password breaches and hacks on cloud-storage facilities, but there’s an intimacy to the technology that makes privacy issues feel undeniably more personal.

There is a real chance that facial recognition could become the source of a whole new type of 21st century identity crime.

Webcams and software apps are now capable of picking your face out of a picture that contains dozens, even hundreds, of other human faces, and as social media networks gather together such pictures by the millions, there is a real chance that facial recognition could become the source of a whole new type of 21st century identity crime.

However, despite the complexity of facial recognition technology, the best ways to defend against its misuse are practical and straightforward enough that you shouldn’t be afraid of your own webcam.

How Facial Recognition Works

Your face is the fingerprint of the digital age. Just as fingerprint analysis relies on the collection and comparison of a few key points within each pattern, so too does facial recognition. In video-based facial recognition, dozens of elements across your face, such as the depth of your eye sockets, the width of your nose, and the distance between features, are mapped by specialized cameras and recorded as your unique profile.

This process of feature-based facial profiling is just a primitive example, however. Modern techniques center on either hybrid combinations of major feature and structural analysis, skin texture modeling that can detect small spots and lines, or the more accurate thermal imaging, which captures the broader shape of the head while ignoring things such as glasses or the effects of makeup.

This is the kind of technology behind Microsoft’s Windows Hello biometric security system, which can be paired with consumer-grade webcams to improve your online protection beyond a simple password. In demonstration mode it looks like this:

Of course, facial recognition is capable of far more than just logging you into your own computer.

Amazon Is Selling Facial Recognition for Cheap

Facial recognition privacy issues really come to the fore when the camera and software being discussed is designed to actively search and discover. Amazon’s new facial recognition software, Rekognition, for example, is able to actively hunt through archives of images and video and accurately identify people, activities, objects, text, and scenes…which covers pretty much everything you’d ever do in life.

What is more, the technology is very cheap, costing around ten cents per minute of analyzed footage. The power of the Rekognition software has made it an attractive surveillance tool, and it has been used by a number of U.S. government bodies, including law enforcement agencies, as you can see in the video below.

As with any technology, there’s a positive and a negative way to view law enforcement interest in facial recognition. On the plus side, it can streamline mass public screening at places such as borders and airports…and on the negative side there’s the opportunity to easily and accurately follow individuals across public video systems.

Possibly an even bigger concern is, in our opinion, the way the commercial world may use facial recognition technology.

Facebook’s Bad Boy Reputation Could Ruin Its Webcam

All this brings us to the security concerns around a product released by a controversial social media company. Social media giant Facebook recently demonstrated its new hardware capabilities with the release of a promising new personal video conferencing device. Called the Facebook Portal, it’s an all-in-one video caller, social media platform, and voice-activated search engine that includes a smart camera capable of tracking human faces as they move around the room.

The ability for a camera and software to, as with Rekognition, identify objects, activities, and people makes it ideal for exploitation by commercial interests.

Given Facebook’s recent troubles with dissemination of its users’ personal information, the Portal’s smart camera has attracted plenty of scepticism from reviewers. That caution was given credence once Facebook conceded it would use data about who users called and what apps they accessed to target advertising.

That’s (at least for now) a more realistic concern than an anonymous agency tracking you through the streets of your hometown. The ability for a camera and software to, as with Rekognition, identify objects, activities, and people makes it ideal for exploitation by commercial interests. Imagine if that smart camera could discern what each member of your family eats for breakfast or the clothes they wear.

How to Handle Privacy Concerns

Luckily, prying digital eyes are easily counteracted–and the Portal even ships with a few of these privacy protectors. Using the following tips, you can limit the gaze of any facial recognition device.

Use a privacy shutter: This is a simple solution, but in most cases physical webcam security is the easiest and most secure option. Look for a webcam that includes a physical shutter that slides over the lens when it’s not in use.

Turn it off: Again, this is a simple but reliable solution. Unplug your webcam or turn it off on your computer when not in use.

Disable the camera: You can disable your camera electronically within the device controls on your computer.

Password-protect your hardware: Not all devices will have this feature, but look for those with this extra built-in protection.

Use localized software: Leading webcams will ship with their own internal drivers and software to limit the need to interact with commercial servers.

Use firewalls: Every computer should have at least a minimal software barrier to the outside world. PC users, for example, can access Windows Defender for free.

Other than those tips above, the best way to enjoy the advantages of facial recognition–including increased security–is to be prudent about who you interact with online. With smarter-than-average cameras and software, you’re disclosing more than ever before. Be careful about who gets to share that view.

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