Commentary

MY Face Or Yours? Exploring The Reality Of Facial Recognition Tech

Facial recognition technology (or “FRT”) is no longer just the subject of Sci-Fi movies or the property of the Department of Homeland Security.  Brands are dipping their feet into the technology, so they can better target ad dollars to their desired demographics.  But with FRT comes concerns about consumer privacy.  How deep can brands go with facial recognition technology before upsetting consumers -- and regulators?

The Evolving Technology

What does “facial recognition technology” mean?  The truth is, the terminology encompasses a fairly broad spectrum of activities.  At the most basic level, FRT merely recognizes that there is a face in a photo.  More sophisticated versions recognize particular characteristics of a face to match with other images, and potentially identify a face.   

FRT has taken some major leaps forward in recent years.  Better quality (and 3D quality) cameras and lenses allow for more data to be extracted from a photo.  Further, the proliferation of readily identified photos online (see Facebook, Instagram, etc.) has expanded the database from which to pluck photos.   

What Brands Are Doing (and Why)

Advertisers are beginning to see the possibilities here.  

Facebook has been employing a form of FRT since at least 2010, by offering consumers the opportunity to bypass the grueling process of manually tagging friends in photos and instead, automatically scanning faces in photos and suggesting who should be tagged.  Facebook’s No. 1 asset is consumer information, so technology that helps increase views and the amount of personal information on the site is extremely useful for Facebook.  Facebook is all-in on this path, as in June 2012, it announced its acquisition of Face.com, the company that created the FRT software Facebook uses.  

Las Vegas’ Venetian Resort & Casino developed an FRT display on digital boards that assesses the general characteristics of a face (e.g., 20-year-old male, or 55-year-old female) to tailor suggestions for available sights and activities.  While it may be more natural for a casino to invest in this technology, given its pre-existing security concerns, big brands like Adidas and Kraft will be following suit.  

Digital billboards at your shoe store, grocery store or maybe just on Main Street, could be sizing you up for the type of footwear you’d like, or maybe the dish you’d like to serve your kids tonight. Then presenting that content to you right away.  It’s internet’s tracking “cookies” on steroids.   

Or, want to know if it’s worth hitting your local bar tonight?  SceneTap is one app that gives you the statistics on male/female ratios and average age of patrons at many of your local haunts.  It’s aggregated -– not personally identifiable -– information, but it’s still valuable to bar-hoppers (and advertisers).

Intel is a player in this game as well, planning to launch a new set-top box that can monitor who exactly is watching TV at that exact moment.  Advertisers would interested in technology that could shed more light on Nielsen numbers.  It’s unclear at this point though what the consumer gains from the seeing-eye TV.

In the future, the technology could be used for good ( authentication purposes to enable access to your mobile device or even your home) or for evil (identifying previously anonymous individuals -- or even kids! -- on the street and sharing that personal information with others).  

Potential Regulation

The public is not yet 100% comfortable with the use of FRT for anti-terrorism purposes. It may be even less understanding when FRT is employed commercially.  

Indeed, privacy is one of the hot-button issues at the FTC.  Just in the last 18 months, the FTC has entered into settlements with each of Facebook, Google and MySpace for various failures in living up to promises to protect consumers’ privacy.  

In March 2012, the FTC issued a final report articulating best practices for businesses to protect privacy and give consumers control over their own personally identifiable information, recommending that Congress enact legislation in the same vein.  

The FTC has already begun exploring the consequences of exploiting FRT for commercial use, recognizing the potential infringement on individual privacy.  In December 2011, it held a workshop on the topic, where after acknowledging the potential benefits, FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz warned, “…these new technologies have an enormous potential, really, to run right over consumers if they’re not used properly, forcing us to reveal more than we want to or even more than we know we have to reveal.”

Then, just this last month, the FTC’s associate director, division of privacy and identity protection, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee reiterating Commissioner Leibowitz’ previous comments, and noting that the FTC will present formal policy recommendations later this year.  

Where Do We Go?

As brands and agencies are exploring the possibilities of this technology, there are a few guideposts to consider:

*Don’t take more than necessary:  How many data points do you really need from your target “face” to make your concept work?  

*Guard it and trash it:  What measures are you taking to protect the data you collect, and can you safely dispose of it? 

*Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure:  Would consumers reasonably understand that their faces are being recorded/photographed and used in your context?  If not, what can you do to make them more aware?

For better or worse, FRT may soon be more commonplace, helping brands get to know consumers better.  How brands handle this newfound toy will be something to follow.  Regardless, we may all need to all start showering before we leave the house (or turn on the TV!).  

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