Colorado Students Photographed for Facial Recognition Study

The research project received funding from U.S. intelligence and military agencies.

  • Published 28 May 2019

DENVER (AP) — More than 1,700 people walking on a University of Colorado campus were unknowingly photographed as part of a facial recognition research project funded by U.S. intelligence and military agencies, a newspaper reported.

Professor Terrance Boult set up a long-range surveillance camera in an office window at the Colorado Springs campus.

It captured more than 16,000 images of passers-by during the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013, The Denver Post reported Monday.

The research project, which was first reported by the Colorado Springs Independent, received funding from U.S. intelligence and military agencies, including the Office of Naval Research and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Boult’s research examined whether facial recognition algorithms could meet standards for use by the U.S. Navy. The research then aimed to improve the technology after Boult’s team found it wasn’t up to par.

“The study is trying to make facial recognition better, especially at long range or surveillance applications,” Boult said. “We wanted to collect a dataset of people acting naturally in public because that’s the way people are trying to use facial recognition.”

The camera recorded people who were walking on the west lawn of the campus from about 490 feet (150 meters) away. The images resulted in 1,732 unique identities. The dataset was made publicly available online in 2016 and was taken down last April.

Boult said he waited five years to release the dataset online to protect student privacy.

The university’s Institutional Review Board also examined the research protocol for the project, university spokesman Jared Verner said in a statement.

“No personal information was collected or distributed in this specific study,” Verner said. “The photographs were collected in public areas and made available to researchers after five years when most students would have graduated.”

The project raises questions about whether technological advancement is crossing ethical boundaries, said Bernard Chao, a University of Denver law professor, who teaches the intersection of law and technology.

“It’s yet another area where we’re seeing privacy intrusions that disturb us,” Chao said.

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