Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Big Data, Facial Recognition and Privacy

In October of 2012, the FTC released these guidelines on dealing with the privacy issues of facial recognition. The publication begins with a scene from the movie Minority Report where the protagonist is offered a product based on facial recognition software. When the movie came out, this future seemed decades away. However, now it just seems around the corner. And this is primarily due to advances in data mining capabilities brought to you by the cloud and more specifically big data. One of key characteristics of Big Data (see here for IBM's definition) is being able to include data that is not just massive or fast moving, but also goes beyond the simple world of flat file - meaning it includes images.

And here comes the interesting part about privacy and big data. Think about the following scenario: you walk  into a store, the security cameras take your picture, it's uploaded to Google Images (see below for how this works), a second search is done to find out what you've posted publicly on the various social sites and then you are approached by a sales associate who has all this information about you and then can tailor its offerings to you.

Privacy regulations requires that users give consent before their information is collected. So could this simply be circumvented by posting a sign that states "By entering this premises, you consent to the store collecting your image and using that information to tailor offerings, services and the like to your online profile"?

I think so.

As I posted last week, TJX was effectively able to stop the Canadian privacy watchdog, by agreeing to encrypt the personal information it should not collect. So it does not take much for companies to persuade users (or the privacy regulators) to get what they want from their customers/users. At the end of they day, companies simply have to repeat the Capitalist mantra: "You are free to go somewhere else if you don't like our policies". Never mind that all the companies have the same policies, which means you don't have any choice except to wear a mask when you enter the store. And that is not advisable because it may be result in being billy clubbed or tazered by security guards! Or to be a little less dramatic, the store will simply offer to refuse you service if you wear a mask.

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