Hey mom, did you see this? Camps are using facial recognition, latest use of controversial tech

Hey mom, did you see this? Camps are using facial recognition, latest use of controversial tech (USA TODAY)
More than 100 summer camps have added a high-tech solution feature are using facial recognition technology to help parents catch a glimpse of their kids when they’re away at camp, a convenience that also raises privacy concerns over the increasing reach of surveillance in society.

More than 100 summer camps are using facial recognition technology to help parents catch a glimpse of their kids when they’re away at camp, a convenience that also raises privacy concerns over the increasing reach of surveillance in society.

I first encountered this technology at a recent road race. I’ll have a post on my questions/concerns soon.

Venture capital-backed Waldo Photos has been selling the service to identify specific children in the flood of photos provided daily to parents by many sleep-away camps. Camps working with the Austin, Texas-based company give parents a private code to sign up. Parents then upload a headshot or selfie of their child to Waldo’s system.

The challenge is that apps/tools like this sound incredible. Parents and participants love quickly seeing photos of themselves show up days later in their email or text messages. But, what are the larger privacy or security implications?

The service has been embraced by parents who have tried it. But similar technology has raised alarms among privacy watchdogs who worry police could leverage photo recognition and increasingly cheap cloud computing power to tap into huge databases of photos, such as drivers’ licenses, then scan and monitor crowds of people, stifling freedom of movement.

The CEO of Waldo indicates that measures are in place to protect (and remove) individuals that want to opt in.

Waldo CEO Rodney Rice said his company is aware of privacy concerns. The program is entirely opt-in – if a family doesn’t upload a photo of their child, Waldo doesn’t search for them. And before they do, families sign a detailed permission statement. Waldo uses a two-step verification system so only campers’ families have access to the photos.

There’s also a protective feature for families for whom there are security concerns about having photos of their children made public. Their photos can be automatically matched, extracted and removed from the database.

“If you have kids whose dad is a DEA agent, or who are in a custody issue, we’re able to remove their photos,” Rice said.

Having used a service like this, there were a lot of “false positives” in which the system indicated that I was (or my Wife was) in the photo. We were not in many of the photos they indicated, and instead we skimmed/scanned through a bunch of strangers who may be unaware that we were watching.

There are few laws that govern use of facial recognition technology, so it’s up to the individual company – and the user – to set and ensure limits on who has access to this personally identifiable data.

Waldo’s system is currently in use at more than 100 camps in 33 states and is expanding into schools and youth sports teams. The service keeps a child’s image until the account is deleted, so if a child’s camp, school and soccer team were all “Waldo-fied” as Rice calls it, the parents could quickly and easily gather all the photos of their child. If a parent doesn’t want the company to retain the image beyond the summer, for instance, they can go to site and delete their account.

I have concerns about technologies like this, while also seeing the value. I also have concerns about where the data goes if/when these databases are co-opted by others for far more nefarious purposes.

Do you trust these companies to hold your data forever? Will they be in business forever? What is their plan to delete, obfuscate, destroy your photos after a specific time period?

6 thoughts on “Hey mom, did you see this? Camps are using facial recognition, latest use of controversial tech

  1. For me, this comes back to being informed. The question I ask is convenience at what cost? I respect that I may not be able to own all my data, but there is something about such companies (Facebook included) that just doesn’t feel right in schools. It kind of reminds me of AltSchool. Do we need such surveillance, at all?
    I highly recommend Ben Williamson’s book Big Data in Education on many of these matters.

    1. Agreed. I think it comes down to value for what they’re taking/using. I see/find value in what Google gives me via machine learning for their use in gMail, Calendar, etc.

      I think it’s also complicated by the added element of the children. This is one of the spaces that is a challenge as we’ve all had the opportunity to decide whether or not we want to be a part of these spaces. Kids are now growing up automatically on Facebook, and embedded in a surveillance culture.

      A fun read on these possible futures is Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (https://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/).

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