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Colorado students unknowingly photographed for facial recognition study

The Hill logo The Hill 5/28/2019 Tal Axelrod
Colorado students unknowingly photographed for facial recognition study © iStock Colorado students unknowingly photographed for facial recognition study

A professor at the University of Colorado's Colorado Springs (UCCS) campus oversaw a project that photographed more than 1,700 unwitting students, faculty members and others in public more than six years ago in an effort to improve facial recognition technology.

The Denver Post reported Monday that the images were posted online and were available to be downloaded from 2016 until April of this year. Professor Terrance Boult, who ran the project, and university officials defended the project to the Post.

The project, which was first reported last week by the Colorado Springs Independent, started in 2012 and received an unknown amount of funding from various U.S. intelligence and military agencies, including the Office of Naval Research, Special Operations Command and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Boult's research studied facial recognition algorithms to determine if they met the Navy's standards, but the military ultimately found the technology inefficient.

"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 told the Post.

"The study is trying to make facial recognition better, especially at long range or surveillance applications," he added. "We wanted to collect a dataset of people acting naturally in public because that's the way people are trying to use facial recognition."

Boult set up a long-range camera 150 meters away from public part of campus where passers-by would be seen and would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Their pictures were surreptitiously taken on various days during the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013. The project produced more than 16,000 images and found 1,732 unique identities.

Boult said he waited five years to release the dataset of pictures publicly, citing student privacy concerns.

A spokesman told The Hill that the university is simultaneously committed to protecting student privacy and providing faculty the ability to study a range of topics.

"The research protocol was analyzed by the UCCS Institutional Review Board, which assures the protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects in research," spokesman Jared Verner said. "No personal information was collected or distributed in this specific study. The photographs were collected in public areas and made available to researchers after five years when most students would have graduated."

Boult said the dataset was taken offline not because of privacy concerns but rather because of an April article in the Financial Times that he said "gave out more information ... than we intended."

The published information included the date and time the photos were taken, which Boult said contradicted the purpose of randomizing the pictures.

While he said he would try to address individual concerns if a student objected to being part of the study, Boult maintained the pictures were being used for the greater good.

"If somebody wants to come and sit in my lab and go through the thousands of photos and say, 'That one is me,' we can gladly remove them from the dataset," Boult said.

"As long as the systems are bad, their potential misuse is consistent," he added. "If police use them and they match the wrong person, that's not good. Our job as researchers is to balance the privacy needs with the research value this provides society, and we went above and beyond what was required."

Updated at 5:21 p.m.


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