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Are They Selling Your Face?


The Best of Business Week Online: Privacy

Are They Selling Your Face?

Biometric devices that scan faces, hands, or eyes are spreading--and raising thorny privacy issues

Thanks to the wonders of technology, your face is becoming unforgettable. Literally. Just ask Edward Jensen, a traveling salesman who stopped at a Texaco station recently near Arlington, Tex., 200 miles away from his home, to cash a paycheck. At this gas station, his face was known--by a machine.

Jensen fed his check into a device that looks like an automated teller machine and then smiled at it. The camera-equipped device, developed by check-cashing company Mr. Payroll Corp., compared Jensen's face with the picture it had of him on file. They matched, and in about a minute, Jensen was on his way with his cash.SPY MOVIES. Forget about mere Social Security numbers as your primary identifier. This machine is just one of a new range of so-called biometric devices that identify people through scans of their faces, hands, fingers, or eyes, or through voice recognition. Biometrics, the science behind all this, creates a statistical profile by assessing biological characteristics. Just five years ago, face-recognition and eye-scan technology were more a staple of spy movies and science fiction. But now, the technology is less complex and far less expensive, and computer power is vast enough to scan millions of faces into a computer database in as little as a minute or less.

But as face, hand, and eye scans proliferate, controversy is rising among privacy advocates, who say that the hightech tracking is bringing to life Orwell's vision of a controlled society. Says Tara Lemmey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "This is just another boost in the number of databases that collect information about people, so it's another way companies are effectively eroding privacy."

With some states switching their drivers' license and identification systems to digitized photographs, which can be stored in computers, the use of biometrics for both ID and security is growing. West Virginia, for example, uses a face scan to stop people from getting a fraudulent drivers' license. A number of casinos in Las Vegas are using face-recognition technology to try to nab known blackjack card counters when they walk in. And some companies and government agencies are using eye scans to determine who gets past high-security clearance devices and who gets restricted.

But some consumers are already uncomfortable with the technology, as the use of it filters into daily life. Michigan, for example, recently decided against switching to face-recognition technology "because the privacy issue surrounding this technology is dicey," says Rose Jarois, who heads the policy division in the office of Michigan's Secretary of State.WRONG HANDS. The biggest rub with privacy groups is that scanning requires little or no cooperation from the subject, so companies could employ it for all sorts of surveillance activities. In the wrong hands, they warn, eye and face scans could be used to track down just about anybody that meets set criteria--not just criminals.

Lemmey offers a scenario in which, say, a bank could examine all the images collected by a face-scanning cash machine to determine a customer's race, age, and other attributes--and then sell that information to another company for a purpose not at all related to bank business. "If people thought the ATM was scanning them for authentication and they knew the bank was allowing data to be used by some other company, they could find it upsetting," she says.

Adds salesman Jensen: "This is convenient, but I used to think that fingerprint-taking was too intrusive. This goes way beyond that. I just hope that Mr. Payroll won't sell my image to anyone else."

A spokesperson for Mr. Payroll says the company has no intention of marketing data. But privacy advocates want regulations to safeguard such information.

Clearly, Mr. Payroll has an interesting technology with huge potential. If a face or eye scan can prevent so-called identity theft, terrific. But in the largely unregulated arena of modern-day privacy, here's another technological innovation that deserves some more thought. In a world where anything digital is being bought and sold to the highest bidder, standards governing the fair use of such biometric data could very well become a part of the next privacy debate--and they probably should, before the technology becomes commonplace.By Marcia Stepanek; Stepanek's Privacy Matters Column Appears Twice a Month at Www.Businessweek.com/today.Htm.


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