Virtru Security Insights

Online Facial Recognition: Here’s How to Protect Your Pics

Facial recognition technology is here and it is going to change the way you work, shop, and live. And it’s not just advertisers who are invading your inboxes and social media accounts; The New York Times reports that the NSA intercepts “millions of images per day” — including about 55,000 “facial recognition quality images.” Unsettling, to say the least.

Facial Recognition is Here, In Your Living Room, and It’s Creepy

Your Xbox One recognizes you every time you walk into your living room, the stores you shop in know you at first glance, and as mentioned above, the NSA uses facial recognition to track of surveillance targets. Facial recognition on a wide scale is here, and not everyone is comfortable with what it means for privacy.

Back in September of 2012, Time ran an online poll measuring the acceptance of retailers measuring shopper behavior via “security” cameras.  The result was 57% disapproving vs. 36% approving: clearly the majority of respondents didn’t like the idea of being watched.

Big Retail Already Recognizes You

Earlier this year Charles Gold wrote a blog post for us about a fictional experience of having salespeople in a mall recognize him as soon as he walked in a store. Crazy science fiction, right?  Wrong. While retailers seem to be steering clear of in-store facial recognition according to this ReadWriteWeb article from 2013, big retail is a high-stakes game involving razor-thin margins and companies looking for any advantage they can gain.  Vendors like 3VR have been offering “big data video mining” to companies like Hilton. It’s only a matter of time before retail establishments tap into a treasure trove of digital information including all the pictures you send and store online.

What Can You Do?

If you have concerns about facial recognition, there are some practical steps you can take to minimize your exposure to being recognized.

    • Don’t upload your images, attach them – When you snap a picture on your cell phone and upload it to something like Facebook or Flickr you are putting your data out there to be indexed, processed, and have the resulting metadata sold to the highest bidder. Keep your images close and if you want to share them with someone, send them as email attachments (but if you do that, don’t forget the next item…)
    • Use Virtru to client-side encrypt your email attachments – When you send a picture to someone use Virtru to secure it.  If you do, no company or government will be able to passively capture and process your images. This is critical because when you send an email via any service you don’t know where your data is going. Individual email providers can make solid assertions about internal security, but if your email flows through a public unencrypted server, there is no promise that it won’t be scanned and processed by a third-party.  If your recipient double clicks on an image and uploads it to some service, there’s no telling what happens to that data.
    • Preserve the right to revoke – Let’s say you send an attachment to someone. They can save it and make separate copies, but most people are going to click on a picture and view it once.  In this case, if your picture hasn’t been copied and you’ve secured with Virtru you can always revoke it after that fact.  If you mistakenly share a picture with someone and you’ve used Virtru to send it you can clean up a difficult situation with the revoke button. (Also, let’s face it, some pictures were not meant to live forever and deserve an expiration date.)

The bad news here is that there’s no way to completely isolate yourself from this technology absent living in a cabin in the middle of uncharted Siberia.  I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but you probably won’t be able to escape having the big advertising network we can the Internet index your face pics, but you can start making it more difficult to recognize your image by securing your own pictures.

Try Virtru today.