Thursday, October 6, 2011

Facial Recognition Technology Creeping into the American Work Place

Over a month ago I posted a pretty extensive blog on Facial Recognition technology and the threat it poses to individual privacy. Because I know not everyone can read every post, I'll repeat a few of my thoughts here today before I get to an outstanding piece by Tana Ganeva of Alternet about the rapid spread of this technology - particularly in the workplace (which is especially disturbing).

The article I commented on here back on September 1st was also from Alternet entitled 5 Unexpected Places You Can Be Tracked With Facial Recognition Technology. As I wrote then, this issue has particular interest to me due to California's recent fight, that we at the Consumer Federation of California were deeply involved in, over biometric identifiers being used by the DMV (our Executive Director is quoted in this article). 

As for the larger concern over facial recognition technology, groups from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) to the ACLU to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to EPIC have all been very active in making the case that there is a very real threat to privacy at stake in determining just how, and when, this technology can be used.  

So let me refresh everyone on the concept of biometric identifiers - like fingerprints, facial, and/or iris scans.  These essentially match an individual’s personal characteristics against an image or database of images. Initially, the system captures a fingerprint, picture, or some other personal characteristic, and transforms it into a small computer file (often called a template). The next time someone interacts with the system, it creates another computer file.

There are a number of reasons why such technological identifiers should concerns us. So let's be real clear, creating a database with millions of facial scans and thumbprints raises a host of surveillance, tracking and security question - never mind the cost. And as you might expect, such identifiers are being utilized by entities ranging from Facebook to the FBI. In fact, the ACLU of California is currently asking for information about law enforcements’ use of information gathered from facial recognition technology (as well as social networking sites, book providers, GPS tracking devices, automatic license plate readers, public video surveillance cameras).

But for today’s sake, let’s hone in on the article by Tana Ganeva, because it adds another critical piece to this privacy eviscerating technological puzzle...a piece that happens to tie directly to the increasing shift in power from workers and people to corporations and "owners". We see this deterioration in worker rights and this widening gap between the wealth, influence, and rights of the rich and powerful versus the rest of us in the uprisings in Ohio and Wisconsin, to the Occupy Wall Street protests spreading across the country, to movements like the Take Back the American Dream.

Here's yet another reason I believe this clash has just begun...and not a minute too soon. In here piece entitled,  "Biometrics at Pizza Hut and KFC? How Face Recognition and Digital Fingerprinting Are Creeping Into the U.S. Workplace" she writes: 

FaceIN uses two cameras to map a worker's face, converting the width of their cheekbones, depth of their eye sockets, nose shape, and other unique facial features into an ID code. Every day after that, workers punch in by standing in front of a machine that recognizes them after a two-second face scan. Unlike the old-fashioned electronic password, FaceIN promises to tightly monitor when workers come and go, permanently banishing "buddy punching" from the workplace -- the time-honored practice of covering for a co-worker who may be running a few minutes late.


Face-scanning time clocks were only introduced in the US in 2010, by companies like Lathem and Compumatic Time Recorders Inc, which outdoes Lathem by offering a time-clock that recognizes workers in the dark. But biometrics -- the science of determining identity through unique physiological features like fingerprints or the pattern of veins -- have been creeping into the American workplace for years. Fingerprint readers, retinal scans, and even machines that use palm pressure to ascertain identity are in use in workplaces ranging from the US Senate to hospitals to construction sites and restaurants.

As you can imagine, the applications vary depending on the work. Namely, the higher up you go on the income ladder, the more likely it is that biometrics are used to aid security or even protect privacy, like keeping hospital records safe.

In low-wage jobs, advances in biometrics are starting to manifest in products that monitor and control employee behavior; devices meant to scare workers out leaving early to pick up the kids, running a few minutes late, or giving friends or family the occasional discount.


KFC, Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes join franchise owners of Pizza Huts and Popeyes in publicizing their use of the technology. A Digital Persona rep also says U.are.U is used in Long John Silvers and Wendy's locations. Hooters' corporate management was so impressed after seeing U.are.U in action at a few restaurants it has made it corporate policy to equip Hooters across the land with the machines, the Digital Persona rep told AlterNet.

Other companies including a popular fast food chain, an omnipresent pharmacy, and an upscale furniture store, are keeping quiet about their use of U.are.U in some of their stores, AlterNet has learned. Their caution seems warranted. Biometrics is a staple of sci-fi dystopias for a reason, and recent, more public debuts of the technology have not gone well. Earlier this summer Facebook faced massive backlash after expanding its face recognition tagging software. The German government even threatened to sue the site for violating German privacy laws, and the Connecticut attorney general scolded Facebook for making the feature default rather than letting users opt-in.


The American low-wage workplace is not exactly a paragon of mutual trust and autonomy. There are, after all, managers to oversee employee activity and in many fast food joints surveillance cameras effectively communicate the point that workers can be watched at all times.

Nussbaum points out that most supervisors would probably notice if half of their crew stopped showing up but kept getting paid. The far more exacting measurement of employee arrivals and departures offered up by the biometric clock appears designed to capture what a human manager might miss. 

An American Payroll Association study cited in Digital Persona promotional materials estimates that "time theft" accounts for between 1.5 to 5 percent of payroll costs. But what about the longer-term economic impact of worker burnout? Nussbaum has found that workers subjected to increasing levels of surveillance can suffer physical and psychological problems.

Of course, the emotional and physical health of their lowest-paid workers has never been top corporate priority. It just doesn't have to be, since essentially every big economic trend over the past 50 years has screwed low-wage workers while ensuring employers have a large supply of disposable labor. 

Right now is a particularly nasty time to be a member of America's working poor. Unemployment rates among high-school graduates hover at around 10 percent -- in comparison, 4.4 percent of college graduates are out of work. This is despite the fact that what new jobs are being spit up by the anemic economy are primarily low-wage, according to a February report by the National Employment Law Project which found 49 percent of job growth over the year took place in industries like retail. 

Facebook has become the most public symbol of privacy corrosion, so the site's use of face recognition technology sparked the most outrage. But biometric technology is starting to appear in many realms. A few weeks ago AlterNet compiled a list of unexpected places where face recognition technology can be found besides Facebook. These included ads in Vegas and in the marketing strategies of companies like Adidas and Kraft, as the Los Angeles Times reported. There's about a 50/50 chance your DMV uses face recognition to run photographs through a database, according to an estimate by the EFF's Lee Tien. Police in departments around the country are being equipped with MORIS, a mobile device that contains face recognition, iris scanning and digital fingerprints. 

One of the things that stands between abuses of the technology is the visceral unease it engenders, which often leads to backlash when it's too crudely imposed. Getting young people accustomed to being fingerprinted just to go to work, though, can go a long way toward making the technology seem more and more natural, so that it also seems perfectly normal to give your fingerprint to the police when you don't have to, or be OK with a corporation, or strangers on the street, knowing who you are from a snapshot of your face. 

Click here to read more.

As I have written here numerous times, more than any one technology and intrusive abuse of it, or the latest "war on terror" court ruling stripping us of yet another civil liberty, is a future in which privacy itself is but a distant, distorted memory. Where are we left when the power of corporate or government interests to monitor everything we do is absolute? 

As I wrote, "Whether its the knowledge that everything we do on the internet is followed and stored, that we can be wiretapped for no reason and without a warrant or probable cause, that smart grid systems monitor our daily in home habits and actions, that our emails can be intercepted, that our naked bodies must be viewed at airports and stored, that our book purchases can be accessed (particularly if Google gets its way and everything goes electronic), that street corner cameras are watching our every move, and that RFID tags and GPS technology allow for the tracking of clothes, cars, and phones (and the list goes on)...what is certain is privacy itself is on life support in this country...and without privacy there is no freedom. I also fear how such a surveillance society stifles dissent and discourages grassroots political/social activism that challenges government and corporate power...something that we desperately need more of in this country, not less." 

The fact that low income workers could now be subjected to constant facial recognition monitoring in the hopes of working them harder, longer, and under even more duress than they already are by an increasingly rich and powerful CEO class is in fact infuriating to me...and represents the clear path our country is on, and has been for over 30 years. And it is this path that is leading to the much needed movement, and protests, starting to take place around this country demanding MORE, not less, worker rights, economic justice, and yes, privacy.

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