What Can Barnstormers Teach Us about Face Recognition? 

Ryan Fletcher/Shutterstock.com

New technologies and a lack of regulation cause real and imagined problems. 

Back in the 1920s, barnstormers crisscrossed the country, dropping into farmer’s fields to offer rides in their exciting new technology, the airplane. These daredevils pushed the performance limits of their aircraft—and all too often, crashed. 

They also provided an example that’s been repeated time and again throughout history: People rapidly applying new technologies to new uses, and a lack of regulation causing real and imagined problems. 

We’re now at a similar point not only with face recognition, but also with many other fast-moving technologies with privacy implications, such as always-listening speakers and phones, GPS that tracks our every move, and, of course, social media. While my recommendations below apply to those technologies as well, I’m focusing on face recognition because there’s currently talk about banning it. 

I appreciate that any technology that collects data about the public can cause legitimate concerns about privacy and civil liberties. But much of the recent reporting about face recognition is based upon partial truths and misunderstandings. The Face Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) released by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology this past December, makes clear that different face recognition systems have different performance levels with different test groups, such as sex, age and race. But that doesn’t mean deliberate bias, only that some vendors’ systems perform better than others—which is typical of all emerging technologies. Competition is a powerful motivator: Vendors will learn from the FRVT report and improve. 

Because of the inherent complexities of face recognition, it’s easy—and, in some cases, beneficial—for some stakeholders to mischaracterize how the technology works and its impact on privacy. But the truth is more nuanced: face recognition offers tremendous opportunities to enhance both security and customer service in government and commercial applications. Yet, if it’s implemented the wrong way, it will have a detrimental impact on privacy and fairness.

For face recognition systems to truly benefit our country, we need to develop methods and safeguards around the four key aspects of introducing any new technology into society: performance, use, control and governance. 

  • Performance: Does a technology perform well in the context of its use? Face recognition performance has improved rapidly in recent years, powered by vast gains in computing speed and storage, and fundamental changes to the algorithms and technology. This quality will only continue to improve. However, performance will never be perfect. Therefore, use of the systems and applications must be controlled and governed. 
  • New Uses: From airport security to smartphones and computer gaming—and customer service and fraud prevention—many new face recognition applications are emerging. It’s vitally important to insert controls and governance into those systems’ architectures to make the benefits of the technology at different performance levels transparent to all. This will help us determine if a new application is ready to be implemented and give individuals control of their personal data. 
  • Control: Technology systems controls are implemented in two ways. First, by knowing the tradeoffs. Second, by having the means to implement decisions about the different tradeoffs. For example, if we give a company the right to collect our facial image to make it easier to get into our phone, do we understand they can use the data that they collect—such as what we’re doing, when, where, and with whom? And are there means of restricting that use that are easy to understand, do, and enforce?
  • Governance: This is where we spell out what’s acceptable and what’s not, and when and why. For instance, is our priority finding terrorists or protecting personal data and privacy? Good governance is not just a list of rules. Good governance recognizes the different aspects of the system for which it’s making rules, so that those rules are truly focused on the real issues. In the case of face recognition, that means that the governance will address the underlying issues of data collection, ownership, use, storage, retention, and aggregation.      

Three important things must happen. First, face recognition developers and users must understand that privacy is not a hindrance to the usefulness of the technology, but rather a means of making face recognition more useful. Second, privacy advocates must recognize that face recognition and similar technologies are necessary and unavoidable—and serve as a positive force in building privacy into those systems. Third, all parties (developers, users, regulators, and legislators) must work together with independent experts to develop technical architectures that allow reasonable governance and control of the technology as it serves the nation’s need for enhanced security.   

Just as barnstorming was a dangerous way to use aircraft, face recognition technology is a tool that can be used well or misused. Rather than ban it, let’s take a page from aviation history and create a system of safeguards and regulatory infrastructure for face recognition and use it as a model for similar technologies. 

Achieving this depends upon people from all sides of the issues making decisions based upon a factual understanding of the technologies—and making a deep commitment to protecting our privacy and civil rights. 

Craig Arndt is the technical director for homeland security programs at MITRE, which operates the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute™, a federally funded research and development center. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.