A professor at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs campus led a project that secretly snapped photos of more than 1,700 students, faculty members and others walking in public more than six years ago in an effort to enhance facial-recognition technology.
The photographs were posted online as a dataset that could be publicly downloaded from 2016 until this past April.
While professor Terrance Boult and CU officials defended the project and its efforts to protect student privacy, a University of Denver law professor questioned whether this is an example of technological advancement crossing ethical boundaries.
“It’s yet another area where we’re seeing privacy intrusions that disturb us,” said Bernard Chao, who teaches the intersection of law and technology at DU and previously practiced law in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years.
The CU Colorado Springs project, first reported last week by the Colorado Springs Independent, began in 2012 with funding from a variety of U.S. intelligence and military operations, including the Office of Naval Research, Special Operations Command and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was not clear how much funding the project received from government agencies.
Boult’s research originally was intended to analyze facial-recognition algorithms to determine whether they were up to snuff for use by the U.S. Navy. But it turned out the technology wasn’t as efficient as the Navy wanted.
“It was solved if you wanted to match two passport photos where the person is facing forward in good light, but not if you wanted to recognize someone 100 meters away,” Boult said.
Boult and his team did more advanced research to try to improve the facial-recognition technology.
“The study is trying to make facial recognition better, especially at long range or surveillance applications,” Boult said. “We wanted to collect a dataset of people acting naturally in public because that’s the way people are trying to use facial recognition.”
Facial-recognition technology is being used more and more, including for things such as enabling Facebook to tag people in pictures, in helping government agencies to check passports or visas, and beyond.
To conduct the study, Boult set up a long-range surveillance camera in an office window about 150 meters away from the West Lawn of the Colorado Springs campus, a public area where passers-by would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The camera surreptitiously photographed people walking in the area of the West Lawn on certain days during the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013.
The candid shots caught students as they looked down at their phones, blurred in motion or walked out of frame altogether.
More than 16,000 images were taken, producing 1,732 unique identities. To protect student privacy, Boult said, he waited five years to release the dataset publicly. That way, people were unable to look at the pictures and figure out a student’s whereabouts in case of a domestic violence concern or a clandestine military placement, he said.