(TNS) — As thousands of Oregon employees, suppliers and contractors file into Intel’s offices each day, cameras are watching – and, now, recording their faces.
Computers analyze those images to identify these people, part of a broad program Intel says will help identify “high risk individuals” who might pose a threat to the chipmaker or its workers.
This may be the largest implementation of facial recognition in the workplace anywhere in the country. Intel has 20,000 employees in Oregon and roughly 50,000 nationwide. It comes as
public scrutiny of the controversial technology is on the rise, with Portland and many other jurisdictions considering laws to restrict the facial recognition.
Intel says it is acting in the interests of worker safety and has taken a number of steps to protect the privacy of employees and visitors. In public disclosures and internal messages, the chipmaker describes its facial recognition as an advancement in workplace security and employee convenience.
Technology watchdogs, though, question whether Intel’s privacy protections will be effective and say the company’s practices put workers in a difficult position since they have no opportunity to opt out of the facial scans.
There are genuine advantages to the technology for both workers and their employers, according to Erica Wagner, an associate dean and professor at Portland State University who studies technology in the workplace. But she cautions that many other companies have backtracked on facial recognition after blowback about potential data breaches or misuse of facial images.
“There are always unintended consequences,” Wagner said. “We do become so excited about these things and the real benefits that we don’t think about the real implications down the road.”
A Safety Concern
Intel said it deployed its facial recognition technology – and license plate readers – beginning February 21 at two of its Oregon campuses, Aloha and Ronler Acres, which is the company’s main manufacturing and research site. The company has also implemented facial recognition at several other U.S. sites outside Oregon and indicated it plans to implement it more broadly over time.
As Intel described it to workers, the company is using facial and license plate scans to ensure people on its property are authorized to be there. Information comes both from employee badges and from a “biometric template” created from security cameras.
Intel isn’t using its own technology, according to the company’s communication with employees, but has contracted with two established facial recognition specialists.
Intel says it will hold former workers’ facial information two years after they leave the company. It will retain most visitors’ faces for 30 days, but will keep data on visitors who are denied access to a site for 30 years. Intel says it will store that data in one of the company’s own data centers.
“The security and safety of individuals on Intel campuses are our top priority,” Intel said in a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We are always looking for opportunities to improve our security in ways that minimize any disruption for our workers and visitors.”
In correspondence with one Intel employee, posted on an internal message board, the chipmaker indicated it is particularly interested in identifying 200 individuals deemed as especially serious threats. With sites all over the world, and automated entry turnstiles at some locations on Intel campuses, the company said it’s difficult to spot those people wherever they may turn up.
Intel defined “high risk individuals” as anyone who “threatens to physically harm someone at Intel,” or someone who “is acting erratically and whose behavior could put anyone in peril.”
Separately, the company indicated that it has taken additional steps to secure its highly sensitive factories. That suggests Intel may also be wary of corporate espionage or sabotage. Intel declined to elaborate on the nature of its concerns.
In its communication with employees, Intel indicated facial recognition may eventually “enable future employee conveniences,” such as additional screening at “high risk areas” and speedier entry past internal security lines.
A small sampling of Intel workers, who asked not to be identified speaking about their employer, expressed a degree of ambivalence. Some are opposed to facial recognition in the workplace, but even among those workers there’s a sense that this kind of scrutiny is inevitable.
Facial recognition is a growing focus among civil liberties organizations, though. While Intel has pledged to safeguard employees’ information, privacy advocates caution that if workers’ biometric information is breached it’s much harder to resolve than, say, a stolen ID card or hacked password.
“If I lose my Social Security card, if I lose my driver’s license, I can replace that. It’s much harder to replace my face,” said Nash Sheard of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online privacy rights.
Companies should only collect biometric information with “affirmative consent,” according to Sheard – meaning that people should have the ability to opt out of such collection. He said it’s not clear that’s possible when an employer is collecting information about its workers.
“Given the power imbalance in that situation, is that actually consent?” Sheard asked.
In recognition of privacy concerns, Portland’s city council is considering what might be the nation’s strictest ban on facial recognition. The city would ban facial recognition by government agencies and, in some contexts, by private businesses who use it to screen customers.
The ban wouldn’t apply to Intel as both of its campuses are in suburbs outside Portland city limits and because Portland’s proposed rules for business use of facial recognition technology only cover public spaces.
Portland’s proposed rules, and those being considered elsewhere, are inspired in part by a widely recognized shortcoming in facial recognition technology – that it more commonly misidentifies people with darker skin. It’s a thorny problem, but one Intel claims to have overcome.
“Intel’s software supplier addresses these factors by training the system with datasets and annotators of various ethnicities, making the system ethnicity agnostic,” the company told employees. It did not elaborate.
That’s one of the problems with technology, said Wagner, the Portland State business dean. She said it’s impossible for those without access to the underlying software to know whether or not statements like that are true.
“Nobody wants to tell you what their proprietary algorithm is but they want to assure you that their algorithm is not biased,” Wagner said.
Nonetheless, Wagner said there can be real benefits to a system like the one Intel is implementing: It could be more convenient, faster, and it may really provide the security benefits Intel promises.
Employees may not have the latitude to opt out, but Wagner said they ought to at least think through the implications of facial recognition – in the same way someone using Google or Facebook ought to be aware of how those companies utilize information about their own users.
“Just have an opinion. Know what the technology does,” Wagner said. “The conversation is the most important part.”
©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.