Once the stuff of sci-fi and spy flicks, facial recognition technology has evolved into a concrete reality touching nearly everyone on the planet.

The technology figures prominently in post-9/11 security. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, 93 countries now issue passports containing the bearer’s biometric facial data. A number of U.S. states use facial recognition to prevent individuals from obtaining multiple driver licenses under different names. And law enforcement agencies successfully use it to identify criminals from video footage.

In the pre-Google, pre-cloud computing era, the technology required for these facial recognition systems was exclusively in the hands of the governments and organizations that deployed them. Flash-forward ten-years and the technology is available off the shelf, biometric databases are booming and the personal information of millions of people is freely available in the cloud.

These new circumstances have prompted the International Biometrics and Identification Association (IBIA), a trade association promoting the appropriate use of identity and security technology, to raise the red flag on an impending “perfect storm.”

The IBIA warns that this perfect storm may destroy the barrier separating our online and offline identities, altering our notions of what constitutes privacy in today’s connected world.
Identification in moments

Imagine a scenario in which anyone with a mobile device could capture an image from a distance and use facial recognition software to identify the individual and access a wealth of personal information that they or others, have uploaded over the years. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have already done it.

In August a team led by Carnegie Mellon Professor Alessandro Acquisti reported that they had successfully combined three technologies accessible to anyone–a commercially available face recognition tool, cloud computing and public information from social network sites such as Facebook–to identify individuals online and in the physical world.

In their first experiment, Acquisti’s team was able to scan profiles on a popular online dating site and identify users–protected under pseudonyms–based on their photo. In another experiment, the team used the technology to identify individuals on the campus based on their Facebook profile photos. A third experiment found the researchers identifying students’ Social Security numbers and predicting their personal interests using a photo of the subject’s face.

“The results foreshadow a future when we all may be recognizable on the street–not just by friends or government agencies using sophisticated devices–but by anyone with a smart phone and Internet connection,” said the researchers...