Facial Recognition: Privacy vs Security

August 9, 2014 will live in the hearts of many as a day of a tragic injustice. A young black teenager was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. People across the country protested the behavior of the officer, deeming his actions to be based off of feelings of racial superiority rather than justice. The accounts of witnesses vary, but if there were a video that showed exactly what happened, it would make all the difference. In the wake of the shooting, and ultimately the death, of 18-year-old Michael Brown, there has been a bigger push than ever to have police officers wear body cameras. President Obama strongly advocates for such cameras and has proposed a plan that would pour 75 million dollars into federal spending to allot 50,000 recording devices for police departments. However, the decision to implement body cameras is much more complex than just finding the money to do so. There are many privacy concerns that come along with this decisions. Concerns such as when will the camera be on (do the officers get to pick and choose what is going to be recorded?), how long will the footage be kept, who can access the footage, will the cameras hinder people’s willingness to give cops tips, what technology will be used, and what privacy infringements will accompany these camera? Enabling these cameras to have facial recognition technology is one of these privacy concerns and this post will address those concerns.

First, to truly understand the debate, it is essential to know how facial recognition technology operates. Facial recognition technology uses an algorithm to measure unique facial features such as the space between the eyes, the depth of the eye sockets, the shape of the cheekbones, the length of the jawline, or the width of the nose. It uses these measurements to make what is called a face print. Face prints are just as unique as fingerprints; although, fingerprints are still a more accurate source of biometric identification. Another algorithm is used to then run face prints with other photos that are in the database, searching for a match.

The use of this technology is not new—Facebook and Google+ use it to help you identify friends or yourself in photos, Find My FaceMate uses facial recognition technology for dating purposes, casinos use it to monitor players that have been marked as cheaters or suspicious people. There is even a university in the UK that was using facial recognition technology to take roll. Companies are working to use facial recognition technology to find the age and gender of someone looking at their digital kiosk so that they can advertise specifically to that person. The ethics of all these uses are debatable, but there are currently no legal restrictions on commercial use of facial recognition technology. However, when it comes to law enforcement, the idea of utilizing facial recognition technology is primarily seen as negative by our society.

But, why? We’ve all seen movies that portray facial recognition technology as heroic: it’s a fast way to scan a group of people and find the criminal. It helps the good guys win in a matter of seconds. However, there are some legitimate privacy concerns such as what database would the police officers use and would use of this technology by law enforcement destroy anonymity?

The FBI is working to build a database that is “bigger, faster, better”. This database is called Next Generation Identification (NGI) and currently contains more than just fingerprints, it also contains face prints. The NGI does not get the images from mug shots alone. In fact, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, by this year, the NGI will contain 4.3 million images that were not taken for criminal purposes. EFF goes on to explain how if you apply for a job that requires a background check or fingerprinting, the FBI stores your prints in its civil database. However, with the use of facial recognition technology expanding, employers may require a photograph, or “mug shot”. This would then put your information into the NGI along with your fingerprints. The danger in storing criminal and non-criminal data together is that non-criminals could be falsely incriminated merely because their face print and fingerprints are in the database.

Another issue concerning the database is that there is currently no legislation that would block law enforcement from gaining information from organizations such as Facebook. Although the FBI says that it does not currently share information with such sites, who is to say that they won’t in the near future? The problem with the rapid increase of more sophisticated and accessible facial recognition technology is that it is not regulated. Despite tragedies of police brutality, allowing body cameras to have live stream access to facial recognition technologies is rash if it precedes necessary regulation that would protect an individual’s privacy.

One of the biggest concerns that comes up with allowing police officers to have their body cameras equipped with live stream facial recognition technology is that it robs people of the right they feel they have to be anonymous. Facial recognition technology robs by passively tracking and collecting personal biometric data without a warrant. In the Arizona Law Review, Sabrina Lochner says that under the Fourth Amendment, “law enforcement may take a picture of someone’s face from a lawful vantage point without reasonable suspicion or probable cause; there is no reasonable expectation of privacy as to the face, which is constantly exposed to the public.” However, she goes on to say that running the picture through facial recognition technology is not justifiable without reasonable suspicion. If police were equipped with body cameras that used facial recognition in live time, they would be unjustly collecting information on innocent people. This would destroy anonymity. It would restrict what people will do in public, whether it is good or bad.

The privacy concerns that accompany this decision are valid. However, I personally think that the pros of having officers equipped with facial recognition on cameras outweigh the privacy concerns. In Seattle, police officers are using the technology with their own city-determined rules that include annual audits, restrictions on what officers can use the technology, and required logs on usage. Legislation that strictly defines what government agencies are and are not allowed to do needs to be passed before equipping our police officers with body cameras that use facial recognition technology. In this debate, the answer cannot be merely privacy or security; there needs to be a balance that will allow citizen’s privacy and law enforcement’s means to protect citizens.

Surveillance in the Modern Workplace

For as long as there have been employees and bosses to manage them, there has been workplace surveillance. From the foreman of a construction site, leering managers in a cubicle-filled office, and drill sergeants in a military line; it is a commonly held belief that monitoring workers is essential to keeping them in line. The advent of modern electronic surveillance systems has created a workplace environment in which the boss is always looking over your shoulder.

The ever-increasing sophistication of these electronic surveillance systems presents equal concern surrounding their use, as well as the effectiveness of these sometimes invasive systems. Privacy in the workplace takes many forms: it can be as simple as monitoring of e-mails and call logs, but it may also include sophisticated camera systems by which every movement, every served drink, and every service ticket is monitored, recorded, and analyzed.

Workplace surveillance gives cause for concern when employers are able to monitor personal correspondence, such as the content of messages and voice calls. In California, state law requires that both parties be informed that the call is recorded by a beep or recorded disclaimer. However, employers are required to stop the monitoring once it is realized that it is a personal call. It is unclear whether any currently available software is capable of discerning a personal call from a business related call, and what happens with the already recorded data. This means that the content of a phone call may need to be heard by an employer before they can make a determination that it is personal.

In the digital age, employers face increasing scrutiny from employees who, through social media, have been given more visibility than ever before. From expletive-laden comments on Twitter, to entire blog sites dedicated to criticizing their employer, consumers and employees alike have the ability to reach millions with the click of a mouse. It is important that employees, and their employers, are given clear guidelines to protect the interests of each party. To ensure that this extends across all industries and jobs, legislation may be a necessary part of the solution.

Companies see surveillance as a way to protect their interests. This may extend into the personal lives of employees by monitoring their social media usage, ensuring that nothing is said or done which may damage the reputation of the company.  Employers may also find ways around these laws by hiring third parties to monitor employee social media accounts for them. A number of employers have even fired employees for content they’ve posted online. Huffington Post, an internet news blog, has an entire section dedicated to people who have been fired due to posts on social media.

Although many believe that grievances aired off the clock and on their social media accounts are protected acts, they are likely not. The National Labor Relations Board found several instances of lawful terminations linked to social media “gripes”. Employees are subject to surveillance off the clock on their social media accounts and may face disciplinary action if sharing these ideas online. Legislation exists to protect employees in places such as Colorado from employer control of social media accounts. However, employees are still subject to any information which may be publicly available or leaked.

While employers may find it important to ensure they hire people who they believe will fit their image, it could be argued that employees should have the right to privacy, even if using company property to conduct personal business. Legislation keeping social media and personal e-mail account access from employers should be enacted to allow employees to maintain privacy. This is a reasonable expectation because countless employees use company devices to access personal accounts every day. As a result, social networking and electronic communication have become an important part of everyday life.

Aside from protecting digital information, employers and employees alike are increasingly concerned with physical security of employees. An FBI report released in 2014 details a trend of increased workplace shootings over the last seven years. Despite possible tax incentives for hiring convicted felons, employers may be held liable for workplace violence by knowingly retaining employees who have shown to have a violent criminal past. Because of this, many employers may feel an obligation to monitor to mental health and/or communications of their employees.

Monitoring the behavior and physical location of employees provides employers more control over what happens in the workplace. Physical monitoring may be successfully accomplished by video monitoring, as well as GPS tracking on vehicles both personal and company-owned. Understandably, these practices face varying degrees of resistance. Employees often feel entitled to privacy from their employers while off duty. While on the clock, however; courts have generally ruled in favor of GPS monitoring during work hours, regardless of vehicle ownership.

Privacy legislation can take shape in different ways than we might imagine. Recent legislation in Utah, HB0242, provides public employees with the right to a private room in which to breastfeed. The physical privacy afforded in this bill does not extend to private employees in the state, perhaps because of the burden it would put on businesses. Despite this, it may be in the interest of mothers across the country if such legislation was enacted to protect their right to privacy equal to their government peers.

Part of creating clearly outlined rules in regards to privacy in the workplace is the opportunity to create an environment which fosters trust and communication between the employer and the employed. Legislation requiring employers to clearly communicate surveillance practices within the workplace keeps both parties in check, and can help to avoid embarrassing situations. It also enables employers to create an expectation while employees understand what kind of information their employer may capture if they log into their Facebook on a company computer.

Employees should have a right to know when electronic surveillance exists in any form. This information should be disclosed fully and in an upfront manner, such as in an employee handbook. Certain states, such as Connecticut, have created legislation which ensures that employees are given this very kind of advance notice of any electronic monitoring in the workplace.

The rapidly evolving landscape of electronic surveillance requires that these issues are quickly addressed, and that it is done in ways which produce the most future-proof legislation possible. Questions of second use and data retention must also be considered beyond the simple collection of information in the workplace. Although it may be possible to create a compromise through negotiations between employers, employees, and clients, this doesn’t guarantee standards which are applied to every employer, or even every industry. Because of this, legislation may be necessary to provide a base level of protection and compromise for both employers and employees.

Legislation surrounding workplace surveillance must be carefully crafted to protect privacy and safety in favor of employees, while not crippling employers’ ability to maintain their brand image or the security of sensitive data.  Federal laws regarding workplace monitoring already exist, such as the Electronic Communications Act, 18 USC 2150, which allows for unannounced monitoring of business calls across state lines, similar to the aforementioned law in California. This law has the important distinction that an employer must cease monitoring when the employer realizes the call is personal.

Any legislation enacted must not prevent individual employers and employees from striking a balance which both consider favorable and beneficial. The goal of any legislation should lift the burden of these technologies from both parties and allow everyone involved to benefit from them, without being damaging to the reasonable interests of either.

Week 16 News Digest

Failing Security System at Biden’s House


January 18th, 2015




Gunshots were fired at Biden’s residence and failed to be captured by the security cameras. They said that the shots came from the main road but the cameras are facing adjacent of the house. The house is said to have history of problems with the security system. The security system was so unreliable that it would have false alarms and it would give incorrect data so the secret service turned the system off. In November it was said that system was getting fixed because the media found out about the problems with the system. With the shooting taking place the secret service now wants to put more cameras on the property.


Google Glass Bringing Up Privacy Issues


January 16th, 2015




The product glass by google is now having to go back to the drawing board because of the privacy concerns. The main concern is the camera on the glass and how it can be used in a public setting. A number of places have started to ban google glass and the Motion Pictures Association of America are warning theaters about them because of the record feature they have. John Simpson told Associated press that glass “is a perfect stalker’s tool, and it’s difficult to see how they solve that.” Google says that they are still going to sell glass and they are hoping to make better versions down the line because they are “building for the future.”


Terrorist Breaches in France


January 12th, 2015



Terrorist attacks in France show that there have been serious breaches in their intelligence, surveillance and security systems. These attacks on their systems have led to the horrible events that are going on in Paris and France. This is bringing serious concerns to the people about the future for France. In the three attacks that have happened there have been 17 people who have been murdered. The main concern that they are working on is to either increase the surveillance and security or to revamp the whole system. Police in the last week have been told that sleeper cells have been activated and will need to keep their weapons on them at all times.