Is Facial Recognition Technology the Future?

By Jocelyn Baird,

A decade ago, social media was just beginning to bloom and people were only sharing their photos and thoughts with handfuls of trusted family and friends. Ten years later, social media dominates our lives and sharing every moment through photos snapped instantly from the mobile phones that never leave our hands and text updates pushed simultaneously to our Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr feeds has become not only common but expected. If 2014 was the year of the selfie, will 2015 be the year of the self-destruction of our privacy? Only time will tell, but recent developments from MasterCard and Facebook give people reason to be concerned about facial recognition technology and how it is being implemented by companies to help make people's lives simpler while at the same time pushing anonymity even further outside the realm of possibility.

Selfies are the new security, says MasterCard

New technology developed by MasterCard for its mobile apps takes the selfie and turns it from a love-it-or-hate-it hallmark of social media photography to a cutting edge form of security. Targeted at millennials, MasterCard's technology will allow users to take a selfie to authorize a purchase. The way it works is when you make a purchase with your card, a notification will pop up on your smartphone requesting that you snap a picture of your face in order to confirm your identity (and that you are the one making the purchase). To help prevent hackers from bypassing this security feature by simply holding up a photo of you, MasterCard's app requires you to blink when taking the photo. The app will also allow users to scan their fingerprints, à la Apple Pay, to confirm transactions.

This announcement came right on the heels of news that Facebook's Artificial Intelligence team has developed facial recognition software so advanced that it can recognize a person even if their face is not visible. So long as your face has been tagged and entered into Facebook's system, this new technology can purportedly recognize people based on their clothing, body type, hair, posture and pose. Facebook says it has not yet implemented this technology and won't be in countries where people are concerned about its use -- but the fact that it exists at all is worrisome for the privacy-minded among us.

Why should this be considered a privacy matter?

We as a nation aren't very concerned about our privacy, especially when it comes to social media. According to a survey conducted in late 2013, nearly 25% of respondents said that most of their Facebook posts are public. It should be second nature to think before posting and pay attention to the security settings offered to us by the social media sites we use, but many people simply ignore them. The people who seem to be the most lax about security are millennials, and that's what makes them great targets for technology like MasterCard's selfie authentication.

What should give people of all ages pause for concern about this technology, and especially Facebook's photo verification technology, is what could possibly be done with all of this data. MasterCard and Apple potentially have access to people's fingerprints, while Facebook knows exactly what every user looks like and can now potentially even pick them out from a (photo of a) crowd -- whether their face is visible or not. This type of technology sounds like something you might see in a futuristic dystopian film, and that should be enough to make people stop and think about whether they want to see such technology become widely used. In the wrong hands, this data could be used for identity theft and possibly other nefarious purposes.

Neither of these technologies have been implemented yet. Time will tell what happens in regards to Facebook's new powerful recognition technology, but it's likely that it will be put to use in some form whether we like it or not. MasterCard plans to test its selfie authentication with 500 users before rolling its new app out to the majority of cardholders. Of course, the biggest thing to remember about both of these technologies -- and others -- is that they are more or less opt-in. You can choose not to use fingerprint or photo authentication tools, and you can also customize your Facebook privacy settings to prevent people from tagging you without your approval (and flat-out refuse to tag yourself or upload photos, if you're that paranoid about privacy).

Learn more about ways you can protect your identity both online and offline by reading our identity theft protection blog.

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