Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why we need a debate about facial recognition

If you’re on Facebook at some point you’ve probably been “tagged” in a photo, and being knowledgeable about computer vision, you understand that was done by facial recognition software.

This worries me.

The problem I have is that cameras are spreading like a plague. It’s not enough that everyone except me carries an 8 megapixel camera with them all the time, it’s all the security cams, also known as CCTV. There are just far too many such video systems for humans to watch all the feeds, so they have to be analyzed by software. And, as discussed in this fascinating BBC article about some research at Carnegie Mellon University, facial recognition software is rapidly moving in to the security realm.

Big Brother really is watching us.

But there is another point of view. One of the people interviewed by the BBC notes that two hundred years ago pretty much all of us lived in communities where everyone knew who we were. There was no urban anonymity when we lived in towns of just a few hundred people, and maybe that was a good thing. Having grown up in a small community myself, I know full-well that fear of someone telling your parents what you’ve been doing helps keep you on the straight-and-narrow!

My worry though is that without some debate about how far we want facial recognition to go, we’ll wake up one day to find it’s happened, and at that point it will be too late. So let’s talk about it. Let’s tell our friends and families where this technology is taking us, and let’s see if they think that’s a good thing or not.

If we don’t at least talk about it we risk waking up in a world we might not like.

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