Time to Cover your Selfie Camera

October 10, 2018 | Bob Covello
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I am reading an excellent book named “Cringeworthy:  A Theory of Awkardness”, which examines exactly as the title describes, awkward situations and how to deal with them.  I love reading non-fiction books that are not InfoSec related.  There is so much to learn out there about so many topics.  Sometimes, however, I am led back to my InfoSec passion (or, perhaps it’s an illness).

In the book, author Melissa Dahl mentions two companies that are working on some fascinating software that can read human emotions via facial expressions.  This is a compelling development in technology, reaching beyond facial recognition. Facial recognition, you may recall has had some of its own challenges to overcome.

Of course, emotional recognition software would not be useful for authentication, as there are only seven emotions.  To review, they are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, contempt, and disgust.  As you read this, are your inner InfoSec senses perking up?  They should be.

Part of the way that emotions can be identified are through micro expressions. Micro expressions detect subtle changes in a face, but they happen so fast that it requires specialized training for the human eye to detect them.  Those trained in micro expression recognition can detect, along with the seven emotions, other traits, such as a person’s level of deception. 

While there are not many folks trained in micro expression recognition, a computer may be programmed to respond with alarming accuracy and speed.  Rather than thinking that computerized emotion recognition could be used in a court of law (probably inadmissible as evidence, much like a polygraph), or during an interrogation (also of questionable usefulness), think of the economics of the technology.

One way in which this new technology may be used is to gauge a person’s response when viewing something on the screen.  Using this technology, an advertiser could change what is presented based on the person’s response.  You seemed to retreat a bit when you were shown the large automobile.  Let’s pop an advertisement of the fuel-efficient hybrid.  You enjoyed the flowers that popped up on your birthday? Let’s pop some chocolate onto the screen with a savings coupon.

The privacy concerns of such a technology have led me to place a piece of electrical tape over the front-facing camera on my phone.  I was never a big selfie person to begin with, and this technology is certainly enough to cure me of any urge to have that camera exposed.  Remember, the camera and microphone on your electronic devices are software controlled, so unless you carefully examined that end user license agreement, you may have already given camera control over to one of your applications. 

Like many others, I have had my laptop camera covered for years. When we think about how our emotions may be manipulated by these powerful little handheld devices, it becomes a scarier proposition that our emotions can be interpreted as we look at the screen.

Does this technology have a place in society?  Perhaps it could be used in a hospital emergency room to expedite triage of the most severely ill or injured, or perhaps it can be used for training exercises for law enforcement to determine the level of an individual’s anger during a sensitive interpersonal exchange? My cynical side, however, is more certain that this technology will be used merely to boost sales of the corporations who use it. 

There are definitely beneficial uses for this technology, although, if my camera were uncovered right now, the software could only interpret my expression as a mix of sadness and contempt.

Bob Covello

About the Author: Bob Covello, Guest Blogger
Bob Covello (@BobCovello) is a 20-year technology veteran and InfoSec analyst with a passion for security topics. He is also a volunteer for various organizations focused on advocating for and advising others about staying safe and secure online.
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