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Watch out

Günther Birkenstock / bo, jlwDecember 11, 2012

Biometric data can help to identify people. But digital facial recognition is more accurate, making criminals easier to trace. Still data protection advocates fear that people are losing their privacy.

Facial recognition at computer (Photo: dpa - Bildfunk)
Facial recognitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Whether you're standing at the train station or shopping at a supermarket, there’s a good chance you are being filmed or photographed. Many public places have cameras that capture images, which are converted into digital facial profiles. They store information on a person’s gender and ethnic origin. And they don’t just identify criminals, they can also identify innocent citizens, like people taking part in demonstrations.

No matter where a person's face is photographed, his name and address can be found in few seconds using the right software. And more than often, it’s the images that we post on social media like facebook as well as information on websites that can help with face recognition.

Everyone will be "transparent citizens"

Social networking platforms capture the biometric data of a person when he is tagged – identified in an image online. And when that image shows up online again, the person’s name and details can be provided.

Data protection advocates have protested massively against Facebook across Europe and inIreland, where the US-based company has its European head office.

Human eye (Photo: Jochen Lübke, dpa - Bildfunk)
Facebook was forced to stop automatic facial recognitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Facebook promised to stop using automatic facial recognition in Europe. It also stopped collected new biometric data and deleted what had already been collected.  

In Europe, data and picture use is only allowed when the people in the photograph agree to that image or the data it contains can be used, according to Johannes Casper, Hamburg's Data Protection Commissioner.

He is one of Facebook's most vocal critics. He believes that there are inherent dangers associated with data collection.

"The worst thing is that there are files that store the data of millions of people. It is possible for both state and private enterprise to use and abuse this data by identifying people through photographs," he says.

And the public is losing anonymity, meaning that at some point everyone will be "transparent citizens," he adds.

In the future, companies could combine different data and create customized advertising for customers.

Face recognition is here to stay

There is no way to stop face recognition technology, Casper says.

"[But] the democratic rights of citizens must be respected," he warns.

Facial recognition can be quite useful when fighting crime. Criminals can be identified faster and more accurately, for instance, if there are images from security cameras that can be matched to existing biometric data.

Johannes Caspar
Johannes Caspar warns of the dangers involved with facial recognitionImage: HmbBfDI/Thomas Krenz

"[But] the acquisition is also a form of discrimination, that has the potential to be abused in many cases," Casper warns.

For example, individual face shapes or recognizable clothing may produce matches between two people. And an unsuspecting fan may be turned away from entering a soccer match because his profile is too similar to someone banned from the stadium.

Having restrictions here and there, says Casper, is not enough. He wants a debate on the issue, and quickly. Facial recognition technology advances are developing much faster than the public debate. And existing data protection laws are also outdated, Casper notes.

But Johannes Landvogt, IT Commissioner for the German Government, believes that the current laws are thorough and all encompassing.

Whether companies abide by the law remains to be seen. People only tend to do something about it when they discover that personal data has been made public.

Facial recognition technology is increasingly becoming a reality – in the fight against crime, at the entrance to a casino where a problem gambler is stopped before he is able to gamble away a large sum of money.

There are even strange ties to the adult porn industry. Some providers in the adult industry encourage potential customers to send photos of women they find attractive, which the company will look over and arrange a match.