Big brother is watching (you buy underwear)

Edward Snowden raised the stakes of privacy in June 2013 when he released the scope of the internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence agencies.  We learned quite a bit about what types of data collections were being done.

  1. Phone records gathered
  2. Britain collecting fiber optic data
  3. NSA spying on other world leaders
  4. NSA efforts to crack encryption and undermine Internet security
  5. NSA cracks google and yahoo data center links
  6. NSA collects text messages

All of this is pretty scary stuff but as long as you are as innocent as a newborn baby and have no links to any other people.  No links to other people is hard to pull off as it has already been proven that everyone on earth are separated by six degrees.

Yet as scary as all of that is this is not about the government tracing your every move – it actually much worse than that.  It is about private industry using technology to track their customers.

You can lie about your name when meeting someone in a bar and you can give the wrong telephone number to someone you just met but it is much harder to lie about one of your most fundamental features – your face.

As recently as even a few years ago it would not be affordable for most firms to have facial recognition systems in place but with each year the hardware is both cheaper and more powerful.  The hardware and software are both important pieces to the equation but the missing ingredient is the actual faces.  In some cases the faces are being supplied by the police of people with shoplifting histories which then allows the stores to decide which what action to take against these people.

If you are worried about higher prices at your local store due to shop lifting then this particular intrusion is not so worrying.  Yet, even if you are worried there is really nothing much you can do about it in the US.  There are only two US states, Texas and Illinois, that have laws that deal with privacy concerns and no federal laws.

According to the an article at, 75% of shoppers would not shop at a store that does facial recognition for marketing purposes.  I guess this does resonate with me as I don’t even give out my zip code when asked for it during my check out.

Whether or not we like facial recognition for loss prevention is pretty much a moot point.  If the stores don’t tell the consumers it is in place they won’t be complaining or boycotting stores that use it.  In addition, if facial recognition is good for the bottom line then it will become standard at most stores.

The things that I am worried about is some form of mission creep.  Once the software is in place and doing a great job, it is possible that the thieves will know this to be the case and will go elsewhere.  This leaves a facial recognition system in place looking for a job.

What I foresee is that the cameras that are near the checkout will eventually linked up with the checkout software.  This will allow the store to create more perfect profiles than simply looking at the cookies on your laptop.  The store will have a picture of Mr. Jones, linked to all of the items that he has ever purchased.  Depending on how responsible the establishment is it may even keep track of every method of payments. If Mr. Jones at any point in his “consumer relationship”  filled out a survey or was a member of a rewards club program then the company has his address and perhaps birth date.

This is not so speculative as almost this very thing was being done at Target to profile their customers to create pregnancy scores.  This is an example of how big data can be used to find patterns and then use those patterns to try and sell some merchandise.

If the stores you frequent have this types of personal information, you will be receiving birthday congratulations perhaps with coupons. If your particular interests are not so obscure (extreme ironing, soap carving, collecting sick bags) it is quite possible that you will be receiving personalized advertising sent directly to your home or email.

People are not innately lazy but there are limits to how much they can do in order to prevent being caught up in that web.  One way would be to have a large number of credit cards or use cash.  Neither is particular convenient, the former is not free and the latter means you either go to the ATM often or have piles of cash with you or at home. Besides, using extreme methods of payment might be enough to create anonymity when every transaction is now being tied together by your face.

Just how prevalent is facial recognition software?    Well a couple of google searches will return a number of companies that are in the market with their own solutions.  It is difficult to say exactly what the solutions are that they provide other than they do facial recognition.

FaceFirst (
Safran (
Cognitec (
Sightcorp  (

Of the list of companies that provide solutions the one that might be more interesting than the rest would be the last, Kairos.  According to their site they do emotion analysis.  It is difficult to say if this would threaten the people in the marketing department but as a solution it would provide a method to prevent individual bias when evaluating people during their research.

In addition to the list of private companies with their solution, there are some public companies with their private uses for facial recognition.

You know that facial recognition has finally hit the mainstream when you can even find open source projects that deal with that particular problem.

How Serious is this really?

Well, as there really are very few laws for governing the behavior of companies tracking people by their faces then I guess the industry will be responsible for self regulating their own behavior.  How bad could it really get?

Companies or trade groups seem to have a rather spotty record when it comes to self regulating their own behavior.  This is not so much my personal observations as what you can find in the news.

Apparently there were negotiations on the topic of facial recognition privacy and they didn’t go well. You can hardly expect that organizations whose main goal is to make a good return for their investors to want to limit their future actions. The issue is two mutually exclusive groups, one who would feel uncomfortable to be personally tracked by their clothing shop, electronics store, and church while the other wants to build profiles that they can use to make money.

It seems that the two groups were not very close to an agreement when the meeting broke up.

So we asked a narrower hypothetical: Suppose you’re walking down a public street—not private property—and a company you’ve never heard of would like to use facial recognition to identify you by name. We asked whether there were any trade groups or companies in the room that would agree that in this case, consent was necessary. The answer was unanimous: silence.

I am not going to invest all of my money into facial recognition software companies, but perhaps I will invest it in facial camouflage companies or other tools to allow people the ability to regain some of their anonymity.


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