Monday, August 01, 2011

How Facial Recognition Technology Can Be Used To Get Your Social Security Number - Kashmir Hill - The Not-So Private Parts - Forbes

faces, for ingy

What does your face give away?

Those freaked out by facial recognition technology have fresh fodder: a study from Carnegie Mellon University in which researchers were able to predict people’s social security numbers after taking a photo of them with a cheap webcam.

At the head of the research team was Alessandro Acquisti, a CMU professor who pointed out in 2009 that the social security number system has a huge security flaw — social security numbers are predictable if you know a person’s hometown and date of birth. This study essentially adds a facial recognition component to that study. Acquisti, Ralph Gross and Fred Stutzman ran three experiments. In the first, they data mined Facebook for photos of people with searchable profiles. They then used that database of faces and identities when applying off-the-shelf facial recognition technology (PittPatt) to “anonymous” singles on a popular dating site. Acquisti told me in an interview last month that they were able to reidentify 15% of the digital Cupids.

In the second experiment, they used a $35 webcam to take photos of CMU students. They then asked the 93 participants to take a quick online survey. While they did that, the facial recognition software went to work figuring out who they were. Acquisti told me that 42% of those participants were linked to their Facebook profiles.

Finally, the third experiment was the one to link faces to their unique nine digits…

For those participants who had date of birth and city publicly available on their account, the researchers could predict a social security number (based on the work from their 2009 study). The researchers sent a follow-up survey to their student participants asking them whether the first five digits of the social security number their algorithm predicted was correct. One problem with this part of the study was that “60% of the CMU students were foreign and don’t have social security numbers,” said Acquisti. Though researchers were still able to tell them all about their interests and favorite movies based on what they got from their Facebook profile pages.

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Beautiful demonstration of how meta-data can be, and is used against you and your puny encryption and obfuscation techniques.

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