Who owns your face?

Have you ever Googled your own name or your friends’ name? Chances are big that Google will come up with a picture related to your search query. Nowadays data can be seen everywhere and it is accessible to a lot of people. However, there are also underlying problems with public data. One example can be related to privacy concerns and ethics. Journalists must weigh the benefits of open data against the risks of personal harm. A popular topic nowadays in the news is regarding facial recognition technologies, is it the end of anonymity?

Facial recognition
Facial recognition techniques are part of computational journalism which can be defined as the application of computer science techniques to the activities of journalism (Flew et al., 2012). But you might wonder how facial recognition tools actually work. With this technique certain software is used that is able to identify people by comparing certain facial features from an image with a database. In this database facial information can be found of somebody’s size and shape of for instance the eyes, nose, ears and a lot more. So when a picture on the web needs to be identified the picture will basically be compared with all the available information in the database and hopefully there will be a match. Should tools such as facial recognition be allowed without your own permission?

(1) Image taken from extremeteh.com

About ethics
The challenge of big data nowadays is regarding ethics, norms and values. According to Lewis and Westland (2015) ethics is concerned with appropriate practice within a framework of moral principles. Sometimes people doubt if there should not be certain regulations which make it clear if it is allowed to publish certain information due to the fact that it might harm someone. I believe that this is not necessary since it is the journalist’s job to decide if something is ethical or not. Even in the future if machines are able to write stories. In my opinion I cannot imagine that machines are able to replace journalists due to the fact that machines cannot show any emotion or understand the context of a story. Therefore, journalists should interpret themselves if a certain situation is ethical or not. This is also what several researchers stated: the automation of many tasks in news content analysis will not replace the human judgment needed for fine-grained, qualitative forms of analysis. (Flaounas et al., 2013).

A good example of a social media platform that uses facial recognition is Facebook. When you tag your best friend in a picture, Facebook will remember his or her facial features in a large database. So the next time you would like to share a picture from you and your best friend with the rest of the world Facebook will come up with a suggestion which possibly identifies the person in the picture. Images can function as data and this can help journalists to support their story. As Eakins (2002) wrote in his paper: “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Recently, Facebook announced that the current technologies have improved a lot and that they can even recognize people in a picture when they are not looking into the camera. So basically, every time you tag someone in the picture, Facebook is very happy with you since the given information will be saved on a large database and makes Facebook smarter and smarter each time. Have you ever thought about this? This possibly explains why facial recognition tools have raised privacy issues. Is it ethical what Facebook is doing with the facial recognition tool? I believe that a lot of people are not aware of what Facebook can do with all the information users put on online. A possible solution could be that Facebook have to ask explicitly for your permission before it is allowed to save your pictures on a database or use facial recognition tools.

(2) Image taken from NRC Next

Computational modeling: Pro’s and con’s
As Lewis and Westlund (2015) stated in their article the technologies and big data of nowadays can have a lot of consequences for democracy and society. Ethics should be kept in mind. Some people say that it can have positive as well as negative consequences on people and society. Let’s start with the negative aspects. Nowadays, terrorists can also benefit from the advanced communication technologies it makes it for instance possible to better coordinate attacks. This was probably also the case when the ISIS prepared the attacks in Paris of last Friday. On the other hand, new technologies can also help journalists and police institutions. For example, after the bomb attacks during the marathon of Boston in 2013 people suggested to use tools such as facial recognition in order to help identifying the terrorists. Can facial recognition techniques prevent future terrorist attacks? This is a difficult question to answer, however facial recognition techniques are currently used a lot as security product.

On the other hand a lot of people do not favor technical tools like these due to privacy issues. In Europe companies have to ask permission if it uses facial recognition tools for commercial purposes. However, this means that basically everyone with the knowledge can use facial recognition tools without noticing other people as long as the do not use it for commercial purposes.  Journalists also use images a lot as proof for their news story. Yesterday there was an article in the news that stated that Jennifer Aniston tried to go undercover in NYC. Off course, this was not possible. First of all, extreme fans of the show Friend’s would have recognized her basically in every outfit. Secondly, people can recognize her on pictures. If you as a journalist have access to that picture you can write a nice article. Thirdly, facial recognition tools can proof that it was Jennifer Anniston wearing the jaunty hat and wearing big sunglasses that night. Images can help magazines such as the Vogue or Glossy a lot when writing a story. But when are you “allowed” to use a picture taken of Jennifer Aniston in public and publish it in a news article. Often news is worth more than thinking of someone’s privacy.

(3) Image taken from Dailymail

Think about the following…
What I would like to point out here is that it is very difficult to stay anonymous nowadays with all the techniques that are currently available. Privacy on the Internet does not exist. Therefore, you should always think about the content you post on social media channels. If you do not want it to become public data you should maybe think whether social media is the right platform for you. Take the example of searching for your name in Google pictures. Often it is not clear how images are being used and where privacy rights are being respected. However, I believe that journalist should interpret themselves what is ethical and what not. I would like to end my story with a quote from Jennifer Lynch (no not Jennifer Aniston):

It is very rare for a fingerprint to be collected without your knowledge.


4 gedachten over “Who owns your face?

  1. Very interesting thoughts about using face-recognition-techniques to identify persons for journalistic stories. The validity of stories, in which images are available could definitely benefit from techniques like this.
    On the other hand a wide distribution of these techniques, outside the areas of law and security-issues, are scary, e.g. this scence of “Minority Report”, in which cameras recognize the face of the main character for personalized ads: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiDMlFycNrw
    But I think that these techniques of recognizing faces can be easily introduced into everyday life, if you have access to face-databases (like the on from Facebook). I think that using these techniques should be subject to discussions and eventual restrictions, when used without the goal to maintain security.


  2. Quite an intuitive perspective on the use of facial recognition technology. However, it is important to point out that the use of facial recognition technologies are not limited to online sources and systems such as social networking sites only. The close circuit camera around the street corner, in public and private places, and those captured during certain official transactions also add up to the database of information holdings on citizens. What is scary is the fact that facial recognition tools could be used to trace persons and individuals to their homes and even their jobs. Provided the data are collected legally and used in accordance with the laws, I do not see much problem, except of course in the case of criminals who crave anonymity. Welcome again to the digital age.


  3. I really like how you have explained the techniques that are used for facial recognition. I agree that there are advantages and disadvantages about facial recognition. I also noticed when Googling my own name that some pictures turn up of which I cannot really recall where they came from. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to get rid of them once they are online.


  4. Nice article about facial recognition and the use of it in social media. Isn’t already in the terms and conditions that Facebook has access to your information and pictures? Facebook has already asked explicit for your consent, but unfortunately many people don’t read the terms and condition. I agree with my fellow students, also the implications of facial recognition in other fields could be beneficial, especially in terms of safety.


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