Incrimination by selfie can happen.
From 2008 to 2010, as Edward Snowden has revealed, the National Security Agency (NSA) collaborated with the British Government Communications Headquarters to intercept the webcam footage of over 1.8 million Yahoo users.
The agencies were analyzing images they downloaded from webcams and scanning them for known terrorists who might be using the service to communicate, matching faces from the footage to suspects with the help of a new technology called face recognition.
The outcome was pure Kafka, with innocent people being caught in the surveillance dragnet. In fact, in attempting to find faces, the Pentagon’s Optic Nerve program recorded webcam sex by its unknowing targets—up to 11 percent of the material the program collected was “undesirable nudity” that employees were warned not to access, according to documents. And that’s just the beginning of what face recognition technology might mean for us in the digital era.
Over the past decade, face recognition has become a fast-growing commercial industry, moving from its governmental origins—programs like Optic Nerve—into everyday life. The technology is being pitched as an effective tool for securely confirming identities, with the financial backing of a new Washington lobbying firm, the Secure Identity & Biometrics Association (SIBA).
To some, face recognition sounds benign, even convenient. Walk up to the international checkpoint in a German airport, gaze up at a camera, and walk into the country without ever needing to pull out a passport—your image is on file, the camera knows who you are. Wander into a retail store and be greeted with personalized product suggestions—the store’s network has a record of what you bought last time. Facebook already uses face recognition to recommend which friends to tag in your photos.
But the technology has a dark side. The U.S. government is in the process of building the world’s largest cache of face recognition data, with the goal of identifying every person in the country. The creation of such a database would mean that anyone could be tracked wherever his or her face appears, whether it’s on a city street or in a mall. Today’s laws don’t protect Americans from having their webcams scanned for facial data.