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Privacy: Can facial recognition technology reveal your Social Security number?

Consumer Reports News: August 02, 2011 10:38 AM

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The answer may be yes, according to a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University.

The research team's leader, Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology and public policy at the Heinz College and a Carnegie Mellon CyLab researcher, noted an earlier study from 2009 that showed Social Security numbers are not random: In fact, you may be able to deduce them armed with just a person's hometown and date of birth.

In CMU's new study, the team used "an off-the-shelf face recognizer, cloud computing and publicly available information from social network sites" to show that facial recognition could be used to identify people fairly easily. Then, for those participants whose date and city of birth were publicly available on their accounts, the researchers were able to figure out a Social Security number, based on the work from the 2009 study. Acquisti will present the results of the study at Black Hat, a technical-security conference in Las Vegas, later this week.

"A person's face is the veritable link between her offline and online identities," said Acquisti in a press release. "When we share tagged photos of ourselves online, it becomes possible for others to link our face to our names in situations where we would normally expect anonymity."

Our advice: Be very careful what you share on Facebook and other sites where you create a profile, share images, and so on, and make sure to review your privacy settings regularly. And check our Guide to online security for more safety tips.

Five things to do when a company leaks your personal info

Schneier on Security: Security Numbers are Not Random [Bruce Schneier]
Face Recognition Software, Social Media Sites Increase Privacy Risks, Says New Carnegie Mellon Study [PR Newswire]
How Facial Recognition Technology Can Be Used To Get Your Social Security Number []

Carol Mangis

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