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    When Software Can Read Your Emotions as You Walk Down the Street

    I’ve written before about the increasing use of “digital signage.” What is “digital signage”? Most people have heard of the term connected with billboards or other screens that have cameras (and facial-recognition technology) to watch people watching ads in order to target advertising toward individuals. The data-gathering and surveillance practices raise substantial privacy questions.

    The Los Angeles Times reported on the expansion of these digital billboards and their use of facial-recognition biometric technology in casinos, Chicago-area bars and more. USA Today and the New York Times have detailed safety problems that can arise from these digital billboards. BBC News has reported on the use of digital billboards in the United Kingdom. The Wall Street Journal has reported on digital signage use in Japan.

    Now, Wired reports on the more widespread use of software from the artificial intelligence startup Affectiva that “will read your emotional reactions” in real time. “Already, CBS has used it to determine how new shows might go down with viewers. And during the 2012 Presidential election, [Affectiva's chief science officer Rana el Kaliouby’s] team experimented with using it to track a sample of voters during a debate.

    As the use of the software expands, El Kaliouby envisions the technology everywhere. “It’ll sit on your phone, in your car, in your fridge. It will sense your emotions and adapt seamlessly without being in your face,” he tells Wired.

    There are significant privacy questions about the use of this software, especially if it is everywhere and used on people without their consent, without any way for a person to opt-out of the invasive data-gathering. What if this data is connected with individuals and the information disseminated? It’s easy to see how people and their emotions could be tracked, creating a profile of individuals.

    Affectiva’s El Kaliouby tells Wired that they’ve thought of this. “We actually don’t store any personal information about the consumers, so we do not have any way of tying back the facial video to an individual,” she says.

    But those are Affectiva’s rules now. They are under no legal obligation to continue to use “anonymous” data. And who is to say what others using their software would do with the data gathered? The privacy and civil liberty concerns with this tech are similar to the ones raised by surveillance cameras and license-plate recognition technology.

    We’ve seen that technology is often used for more purposes than its original intent. For example, surveillance technology, such as video cameras and GPS trackers, are used by people to spy on their partners or spouses. And license-plate reader technology, which has been touted as being helpful for tracking down violent criminals, has been used for tax collection and by an auto dealer to repossess a car.

    Technology will only get better at invading individuals’ privacy. We need strong laws and regulations set up to protect individuals’ rights, so that one need not worry that walking down the street, past ubiquitous surveillance technology, means that you reveal your emotions to advertisers, the government or whoever is watching.

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    3 Responses to “When Software Can Read Your Emotions as You Walk Down the Street”

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