Facial Recognition Billboards May Be Coming Your Way

I recently read a biometrics-related article on CNET News (I am obsessed with the subject) indicating that a group of Japanese railway companies has installed 27 facial recognition-enabled billboards in subway stations around Tokyo as a one-year pilot project that will collect data on passersby in order to tailor advertisements to them in real time.

The project, called the Digital Signage Promotion Project, installs cameras in billboards. If a passerby walks in front of the display and looks at the screen for a second, the camera can distinguish a person’s sex and approximate age. The information gleaned can then be used by marketers to strategically schedule and tailor their marketing campaigns. Project officials say they won’t store images taken by the billboard cameras. Yeah right!

As stated in the CNET News article, this is similar to the personalized ads found in the movie Minority Report.

However, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had already indicated in 2007 that, in Germany, developers were placing video cameras into street advertisements and attempting to discern people’s emotional reactions to the ads. Dutch researchers are using experimental emotion-recognition software to test individuals’ reactions to advertisements and marketing. No results have yet to be published.

A facial recognition system is a computer application for automatically identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame from a video source. One of the ways to do this is by comparing selected facial features from the image with a facial database. It is typically used in security systems and can be compared to other biometric applications such as fingerprint or eye iris recognition systems.

You know that, if it becomes a successful and valuable information source for marketers, this system could end up being implemented in Canada and the United States. Horrifying!

But what am I saying… it is already here. After some research, I found:

Google’s Picasa digital image organizer now has a built-in face recognition system. It can associate faces with persons, so that queries can be run on pictures to return all pictures with a specific group of people together.

Apple’s iPhoto organizer includes a system where people on photos can be tagged and recognized. Then they can be searched using Spotlight.

Sony’s Picture Motion Browser analyzes photos, associates photos with identical faces so that they can be tagged accordingly, and differentiates between photos with one person, many persons and nobody. You can even search images with the same smile!

And, of course, there are all those tagged photos of you, your family and friends on Facebook!

While these are personal applications, at least Picasa and Facebook have an online presence, and it will only become more difficult for ordinary citizens to keep track of all the photos of them available online.

Some facial recognition systems have already been installed for security purposes in airports, multiplexes, banks and other public places in Canada and the US to identify individuals among crowds.

It is even being considered after the G20 summit in Toronto in an effort to identify suspects wanted for various acts of violence and vandalism.

Facial recognition technology offers several privacy issues that marketers and government bodies classify as advantages, particularly that it does not require consent from the subject. Some privacy experts and advocacy group are saying that we are entering a total surveillance society where the government and authorities have the ability to know where we are and what we are doing. Facial recognition technology carries the danger that its use will evolve into a widespread tool for spying on citizens as they move about in public places. Again, horrifying!

In addition, civil liberties group say that facial recognition technology is unreliable because people’s facial patterns can change quite quickly.

What I am wondering is, for heaven sakes why is my privacy slowly being eroded this way? As a citizen and a consumer I never asked for this.

It seems to me that technology has moved too quickly for the law too keep up, and unfortunately (as you might have noticed) several factors are preventing our current leadership—municipal, provincial and federal—from moving on the issue of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. One factor is security. On one side, politicians and law enforcement say that we must use every measure available to reduce the risk of security threats, for example, terrorist attacks. On the other side, politicians and liberties advocates demand that the state refrain from invading citizens’ privacy, regardless of the supposed security threats.

Another factor is that our current crop of politicians has trouble agreeing on anything, let alone enacting the laws necessary to protect citizens from invasive new technologies, or ordering our law enforcement officers to enforce existing privacy laws.

Yet another factor is the ease with which governments can implement such surveillance and facial recognition systems, despite prevailing privacy laws. It is far easier to simply spy on citizens than to create the sort of social structure or foreign policy that would reduce the long-term risk of terrorism and crime. And it’s becoming obvious that, in many cases, citizens seem okay with this.

And when closed-circuit cameras are just about everywhere—in private and public—there’s no simple way to avoid them.

You’ve probably heard some version of Benjamin Franklin’s famous statement:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Does this 235-year-old quote stand up in today’s reality?

Is this just cynical paranoia? Do our leaders and protectors have only our best interests in mind by employing broad surveillance and facial recognition technologies? Is the loss of liberty necessary to reduce the threat of security breach or maintain order? Is the loss of liberty worth the cost—losing one’s privacy?


  1. Samanthat Howes

    Wow, that’s kind of creepy. It reminds me of that scene in Minority Report: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBaiKsYUdvg

    Personally, I don’t believe it when they say they will not store the images. But how would we ever know?

    I’d rather not have ads targeting me specifically. It’s bad enough still having telemarketers calling my house all the time. I wonder if this technology could be used for something other than marketing – to benefit human kind rather than boost consumerism.

  2. I am currently undertaking a research project for my masters in IT Security. My topic is about the legal aspects of the use of biometrics by the public sector, and the main areas I deal with concern national security and immigration, for example the implementation and consequent scrappage of ID cards in the UK. In my opinion and according to some research that I have carried out, there are several points which determine the acceptance of biometric technology in society. There seems to be a divide between people who embrace technology and those who see it only as an enabling factor for their job. In this modern age, more people are taking the viewpoint that privacy can be exchanged for rewards such as the Foursquare location network. Targeted advertising has been the next step in advertising for a long time. Technology which allows this to be done in a way such that verification is made upon your biometrics (i.e. your own body) more or less guarantees security and decreases risks of ID theft or fraud. Imagine the world of tomorrow – is giving up on privacy not only a simple issue when compared to all the new benefits that will be open to us? From the legal viewpoint however, I don’t think that laws will be able to catch up with technology even if various countries are implementating laws such as the Digital Economy Act or the Cybercrime act. A major debate is about jurisdiction and territory – according to me, the first step in creating a universal Technology Act is to accept the Internet as cyberspace and remove all bariers which involve local jurisdiction in matters concerning technology. It could be for example implemented in International Law which takes precedence over domestic law in many countries.