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Google? NSA? Walmart? It soon may be possible for them to track your emotions in addition to your whereabouts without your knowledge or consent. No regulations from the government to prevent massive surveillance are on the horizon. Already companies are selling software that identifies your name just by looking at your face. The New York Times Business section on Sunday May 18th ran a front page article about the threat of privacy invasion now that software programs identify not only who you are by using hidden cameras to scan your face but then also link to your Facebook posts and other sources of information about you which you didn’t know you were providing.
The threat of privacy invasion
The Times article didn’t mention the next step in privacy invasion, just around the corner – new computer programs that can link your identity to how you are feeling at the moment. What was your emotional reaction when you read the latest news about … Edward Snowden, Kim Kardashian, or President Obama? How did you feel about the latest packaging of Tide, or Trojans? Which TV ad for which politician got the biggest emotional kick from you?
Automated computer recognition of moment-to-moment emotions, even attempts to hide emotions, is nearly here. Crude or incomplete versions are already in use, and better ones will soon be available. I know about all of this having developed the first comprehensive offline tool for measuring facial expressions, and my participation in a company that is developing automated emotion recognition based on my work.
People wearing Google Glass may know not only who you are but also how you are feeling
Despite Google’s attempt to prevent this use of their product, something similar will become available from a copycat manufacturer that reveals the same information. The real threat to privacy comes from the surveillance cameras that are nearly everywhere, when they are able to know our most personal feelings about whatever we are looking at, or the emotions that we are feeling as we remember something from our past, recent or distant. These automated “emotion sensors” won’t know what triggered our emotions, just what emotions we are feeling.
The clever use of this invasive technology will attempt to provoke us by triggering engineered emotional events, without prior consent for having our emotions triggered, or having our emotions read, or having our emotions linked to our identity and everything that is already stored about us (what we buy, where we go, who we live with, and who knows what else).
Can our privacy be rescued from invasion?
Can our identity be hidden, the emotions shown on our face not read?
Joseph J. Atick, one of the pioneers of identity recognition, was quoted in the N.Y. Times as saying that companies using face recognition to identify us should post notices they are doing so; they should seek permission from a consumer before identifying them, and use that information only for the purposes the consumer has consented to. Those are very modest protections, in my judgment, but still opposed by some of the companies selling the recognition software.
More protection is needed when it comes to reading our emotions.
Our consent has to be obtained by more than a public notice that it is being done, and more than clicking on a website’s fine print. A specific, explicit consent to have our emotions monitored by a particular company for a specific purpose, that is time limited, probably to one- or two-hour period, should be obtained. Reading children’s emotions should require parental consent for each occasion it is done. And when a government agency such as the NSA reads our emotions, some regulation, better than ones currently in place, need to be established to protect our privacy.
I am a face scientist, not an attorney, data wonk or legislator. I hope this blog will alert all those responsible for the protection of the public to the urgent need for establishing privacy guidelines.
Brian Williams of NBC News talks with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the global impact and debate sparked by his revelations. Read more about this exclusive here.