Who’s Watching Me?

Q: Since Sept. 11 there’s been a lot of talk about facial-recognition technology. How does this work and is it accurate?
–S. Dennis, Moreno Valley, CA

A: You’re right. Since Sept. 11, government agencies and companies have become laser-focused on technology as a security solution. Typically used for identity verification, the technology has been adopted by cities like New York and Virginia Beach, Florida, in an attempt to fight crime and threats of terrorism.

This is the way the technology works in simple terms: A digital camera takes an image of a person and relays that information to a computer database. The computer searches for a certain number of facial characteristics on the individual and compares that image to those of known or suspected criminals. If they find a match, well, you know the rest.

Is the technology reliable? To date, the technology has had limited success and according to some experts is not reliable. In a recent conversation with Bruce Kasanoff, author of Making It Personal: How to Profit from Personalization without Invading Privacy (Perseus, $26.00), the issue of reliability and the misuse of the technology were of concern. “I’ve yet to see facial recognition technology that adds more value than it causes problems,” says Kasanoff. “This is not reliable technology and anyone telling you that it is, is walking a dangerous line….” Kasanoff also expressed his fear that particular groups would be targeted. “It’s not supposed to be profiling but it ends up being profiling.” I tend to agree with Kasanoff and other critics but the public, for the most part, seems willing to embrace the promise of increased security.

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