Ideas in Motion

The Use and Abuse of Facial Recognition Data

Oct 27, 2020 9:05:10 PM

In 1962, when Woodrow Wilson Bledsoe created a measuring system to identify faces, he may not have realized how widespread facial recognition would eventually become.  

Fast forward to today, and the technology is more accurate than ever, thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning. The field has also leveraged the arrival of more powerful processors, cameras with higher pixel counts, and more precise facial-recognition algorithms.

From unlocking your phone to tagging your friends on Facebook, facial recognition is already being used in a wide range of areas. Police agencies routinely use the technology to locate possible criminal suspects and witnesses, and it is also used to provide security at public venues such as concerts and schools.

TikTok is at the center of backlash against facial recognition

While the use of technology has a range of benefits, there are also questions about the privacy, safety, and regulations surrounding the use of facial recognition. 

One company getting particular attention for its use of facial recognition data is TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing app where millions of users worldwide upload short-form videos engaging in viral challenges, lip-syncing, and dancing.

Some believe the videos might eventually be used by state actors for other, more malicious purposes.

A pair of computer security experts Perth, Australia, recently raised concerns about the security of data collected from TikTok users in a recent article. In the piece, they speculated about the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party harvesting the data for their ends.

The concern is that TikTok user data from countries such as the US might eventually be used in the same way that TikTok's sister app in China, Douyin, uses Chinese users' data. Douyin keeps tabs on users, censors content, and adheres to China's strict safety regulations. The Chinese version of the app also contains a facial recognition feature that allows you to drag a box over a person's face in the video. TikTok then pulls up any other post in which that person appears. Although helpful for anyone using the app to find similar content, it's a feature that seems to subject someone who uploads content of themselves to facial recognition algorithms.

Lawsuits and bans 

For these reasons, the action is currently being taken at the individual, state and federal levels regarding facial recognition data from TikTok and other applications.

A suit against TikTok and its parent firm, ByteDance, was filed by four unidentified minors residing in Illinois. It alleges that the app violated an Illinois law protecting individuals' biometric details, including facial, fingerprint, and iris scan data. The biometric law of Illinois demands that businesses that collect such data should receive prior customer approval and inform users of how they will use it and how long it will be held.

"This is not like other privacy information, like a password or something like that that can be changed. Biometric data from you ... is immutable." Adam Polk, the attorney representing the minors, was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.

India's government already banned TikTok in June—along with dozens of other Chinese apps—and authorities in several other major markets are investigating TikTok over national security and data privacy concerns.

President Donald Trump recently said that he would ban the app in the United States. A judge blocked this, but there is still a deadline for a full ban on Nov. 12. Whether TikTok will emerge unscathed from the furor over its alleged misuse of facial recognition data remains to be seen.

Stephen Hoang

Written by Stephen Hoang