Special Report: Your uploaded photos help create a facial recognition database

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It?s already more than just investigators using the technology. (WPVI)

In a world where everyone has a camera, chances are pretty good you're on one most of the time. And the rest of the time, we're busy posting pictures of ourselves and our loved ones.

What you may not realize is that your face in those photos has not only been recorded, but uploaded, analyzed, and digitized countless times. That means all of us are building a database that will change the way the world works.

One month ago, surveillance cameras on a SEPTA platform captured a brutal attack. A 60-year-old man knocked out by a younger man with whom he'd argued moments before.

A few years ago, neither the grainy platform video nor even the clearer image from inside the subway of the suspect might have been enough to make an arrest. But now, his face was all police needed. "After we ran the facial recognition software we came up with a percentage. The percentage was so high, in this case it was almost 97 percent," Captain Daryl Jones of the SEPTA Police Department said.

A short time later, SEPTA police were at his door thanks to the cameras and software that's getting better, and more widespread, every day.

"Its creating a numeric sequence out of the geometric features of your face," Drexel University professor Rob D'Ovidio said. Which together creates a digital map of your face. That way, when someone needs to ID you, the map is cross-referenced with a database of images and in no time, a face becomes a name.

It's already more than just investigators using the technology. "It's in our houses, in consumer electronics, like the Xbox One and the Kinect system that's connected to the Xbox One. It's also in our social media platforms, like Facebook," D'Ovidio said.

Ever notice when your gaming system knows when you have entered the room? Or when you post a picture on Facebook and someone in it is automatically tagged? That is facial recognition.

And all of those images that you put out there are saved up and broken down. "That creates a very powerful database and very valuable database when it comes to advertisers," D'Ovidio said.

In fact, Facebook has acknowledged its work on what it calls Deep Face, a sweeping project aimed at using its enormous catalogue of pictures and images to build an unprecedented database for facial recognition. If perfected, that could help experts ID someone no matter what angle or portion of their face is captured.

That opens the door to endless possibilities: TSA screeners knowing who is in the airport and who shouldn't be. Retailers recognizing when it's you in the store and offering discounts based on what you've viewed online. Even tying your usernames and passwords to your face, so that all you need to log on is your smile.

"In some aspects it's much more secure than just a username and password," D'Ovidio said.

So should you be concerned by how much of you is already out there?

Maybe. But remember that most of it, we put there ourselves.

"Once you upload a photo, once you upload a video, there is no getting it back," D'Ovidio said.

An important note about Facebook. You can change your settings so that you can't be tagged and if your children don't have an account, then the pictures you post of them can't be tagged either. But the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, with this technology. Best defense is simply to be aware and be cautious about where we share our images and what we show when we do.
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