Facial recognition software: Promise or peril?

The federal law prohibits the creation of a national database of gun purchases so the National Tracing Center is forced to locate the owner of a firearm using an antiquated system by reviewing tons of paper records and 500 million entries on microfilm. Chip Reid reports.

(MoneyWatch) Law enforcement in the United States has assembled a huge database of faces from all over the world; it contains more than 120 million searchable photographs, invaluable in tracking down terrorists, criminal suspects and accomplices or checking alibis. Photos on driver's licenses in every state in the union are a part of this database. Facial recognition software is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and as the data that comes with it proliferates, questions about the combination have arisen.

At the TEDGlobal conference this year, Alessandro Acquisti demonstrated how a photograph of a random individual can be sent to a database where it can be quickly and accurately associated with a name, date of birth and Social Security number. He also showed how you could take a potential customer's face, add to it the face of a friend and insert the new image it into an advertisement. An effective strategy, for we like nothing more than the sight of ourselves and our friends, and those good vibes hugely increase the likelihood of a sale.

That facial recognition has improved by three orders of magnitude means that this kind of application is easier, faster, cheaper and more viable than ever before. On the one hand, this makes cases like the Boston Marathon bombing easier to solve. On the other, businesses can compile photo databases from websites like Facebook and potentially exploit the images for commercial purposes.

As is to be expected, the law limiting usage of images lags behind. In the meantime, you may want to ask these questions: Are you comfortable with the notion that your own face can be put to commercial use? How do your friends feel about having a party picture entered into any number of databases and linked to additional personal information? And what is the fallout when -- as is inevitable -- mistakes are made?

It turns out that information about an individual's life has potential value to others. Security services value it in their work. Websites sell the data to advertisers and profit in the process. Advertisers benefit from data about customers by using it to generate sales. But what's in it for the consumer, the citizen? Does the individual reap any benefits? A safer society? Perhaps, but only if police work is mistake-free. A richer society? Yes, for the companies selling data and products, but not for those whose personal information is publicly accessible. One has to wonder what this will do for the quality of life ...

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.