Big Brother is watching you(?)

Facial recognition is invasive, we should be worried


Haley Wernz, Reporter

The advancement of facial recognition technology is bringing up concerns about privacy in the 21st century.

The technology of facial recognition has become so ingrained in our day-to-day lives at a rate so fast it wouldn’t have even been a thing ten years ago (imagine unlocking your Motorola Razr or your LG flip phone with your finger; it’s just not happening). However, what if this technology was being used against us?

Pretty much every day, there’s a good chance you’ve used some sort of personal recognition technology. Whether you unlock your phone with your fingertip or with your face, use Snapchat filters, or even auto-tag friends on Facebook, that’s software specifically designed with algorithms to identify you. Even then, this brings up images of “Big Brother” (1984), or the totalitarian idea of constant government surveillance. Facial recognition is, obviously, not a new topic. However, back in 2011 at a All Things Digital D6 conference, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt says that Google developed the technology and then held it back because he’s “very concerned about the union of mobile tracking and facial recognition.” So why is it just a cool and casual thing now?

Recently, the company Clearview AI has been under fire for its facial recognition database being used by the police for the identification of criminals, along with brands such as Walmart and Macy’s. That’s all fine and dandy until you realize that the photos being used to identify are being taken without permission from sites such as Instagram and Facebook. If the pictures were lawfully taken and all that jazz, there wouldn’t be a problem. The issue is that they kinda just went “YOINK! Finders keepers!” and taking your personal photos. That’s not cool.

Over 2,200 police departments across the country have used this software, according to Buzzfeed News. In January, the CEO of Clearview AI, Hoan Ton-That, had stated in a New York Times article that only 600 police departments had been using the database.

Clearview AI boasts that their facial recognition database, which holds billions of photos, can identify a photo of any individual to any photo of them that has been posted online. Your best selfie could be used to identify you in a criminal case one day if you’re not careful. However, their website claims that they only use photos from public accounts, as it’s not able to access anything that’s not public information. This brings to light a few questions– what are your privacy rights? Do they have the right to use your photos? Do they have the best intentions in mind?

Even if facial recognition is as intertwined in technology as it is, there really is no need for it. Honestly, it feels kind of invasive when it comes down to it. There are even some pretty dystopian lookin’ ways for people to get around facial recognition when they’re out in public– makeup.

Shady Business

Back in late February, Clearview AI and their database were hacked. The way they handled that was oddly lax, like the fact that servers holding the data of billions of photos is just no biggie. “Unfortunately, data breaches are a part of life in the 21st century,” they said in a press statement to BBC News. They also said that the servers were not infiltrated, so the actual data wasn’t accessed. However, in an interview with Daily Beast, they said they had access to the list of customers.

This isn’t the first time they’ve lied, though. In public records obtained by Buzzfeed News, they claimed to have helped in the identification of a “terrorist” (a man who placed rice cookers that looked like bombs) in New York. However, the New York Police Department (NYPD) says that that is not true; they had used the NYPD’s own facial recognition with “lawfully possessed arrest photos,” according to a spokesperson for the department.

Facebook (and other sites such as Instagram) have privacy laws against your photos being scraped up for unlawful and, keyword, unauthorized private use. However, CEO Ton-That says “a lot of people are doing it. Facebook knows,” according to the New York Times. A Facebook spokesman, Jay Nancarrow, said that Facebook would “take appropriate action if we find that they’re violating our rules.” Alright, cool. But wait! Clearview AI is financially backed by Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur and capitalist investor, who’s also on Facebook’s board of directors. Because of this, there may be a conflict of interest, and Facebook may just sweep it under the rug.

The Right to Privacy

Riley v. California

     A case in 2014 was the landmark case to define that yes, your phone and its contents are protected under the fourth amendment. This case, known as Riley v. California, brought up the question of whether convicting Lincoln Park gang member David Leon Riley due to his connection to a drive-by shooting of a rival gang was constitutional or not.

     The evidence collected against Riley (photos and videos of him doing gang signs) was taken from his phone, and Riley was denied access to his phone to delete the media. It was unanimously found by the court that this was unconstitutional under the fourth amendment (protecting your home and personal property from unlawful searches). Obviously, James Madison wasn’t taking your TikToks and other media on your phone in account when he wrote the amendment into effect. The idea of what is legally yours and falls under the right of privacy has changed over the course of time and the law should do its best to keep up with that.

     Supreme Court Justice (at the time) John Roberts said about the Riley v. California case, “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make [it] any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought,” according to the Legal Information Institute. So obviously, you legally have full property rights over your photos and your online information. So what about if they’re stolen?

Social Media

     Back in 2018, it was found that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wanted to sell user information to advertisers for marketing according to an email uncovered by British Parliament. This event led to Zuckerburg testifying against Congress due to Facebook (and likely other Facebook owned apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp) selling user information (from roughly 87 million people)  to Cambridge Analytica, which used said information to influence the 2016 election. Even now, your internet history is being used to influence what ads you see on Facebook.

     Even the FBI “can neither confirm or deny” that they monitor your internet history, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

     Remember when everyone was freaking out over TikTok being a Chinese-owned platform? In November of last year, they were investigated as a national security threat because of their connection to China. This was all from how it was found that the app was censoring videos made that involved keywords that went against the Chinese communist government (“Tiananmen Square,” for example), according to the Guardian.

     Back in November of 2019, there was a lawsuit (it hasn’t been taken to court yet) filed against TikTok for being Chinese spyware. Misty Hong, the plaintiff who brought the case to fruition, says that “TikTok unjustly profits from its secret harvesting of private and personally-identifiable user data,” according to the actual lawsuit documents via the Northern District of California Court. This is due to how user information is stored in servers in China, giving the company full access to it due to law localization. Since the Chinese government monitors and controls data that should be owned by the Chinese people who created it, they also have the right to do that to your videos made on the app. Even if you live in the United States where the government, apparently, “can neither confirm or deny” that they surveillance your online shenanigans.

What Does It All Mean?

Though ClearView AI and their facial recognition database aren’t necessarily in legal trouble at this point (though they should be), talking about it still brings to light the seriousness of privacy and data breaching on social media. Even if it never really does come under the scrutiny of the law, keep in mind that yes, you own your media. Yes, you have a legal right to have that media protected. Yes, ClearView AI is predatory and manipulates the undeveloped system that is social media privacy.