Study On Colorado Springs Campus Took Secret Pictures To Enhance Facial Recognition Technology

A Colorado university professor took thousands of photos of students and faculty without their knowledge as part of research to improve facial recognition software for the U.S. military.

As first reported locally by the Colorado Springs Independent, for several days back in 2012 and 2013, Terrance Boult positioned a camera on a window ledge. He then took continuous photos of pedestrians on a particular stretch of sidewalk on the campus below.  

Boult is a professor of innovation and security at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The U.S. Navy funded his research to improve long range facial recognition capabilities.

“We were looking at making algorithms that understood the issues of blur,” said Boult. “Because as you go through the atmosphere things get blurry.”

Google Maps image of UCCS campus where the study photos were taken
Credit Google Maps
Google Maps image of UCCS campus where the study photos were taken

Since it’s a university, some of the same people passed by the camera regularly. And Boult could use these matching photos to improve the algorithm overall.

Denise Mayes with the ACLU of Colorado is not impressed.

“I don’t know that there’s been consensus on whether or not facial recognition technology is a good thing,” she said. “I’m not sold.”  

Mayes worries about the privacy issue when it comes to this technology.  She's also concerned about the people who ended up in Boult's dataset.

But Boult said this technology is already too entrenched to pull back.  

“If we as researchers don’t make facial recognition better,” Boult said, “then we increase the chance that the system will misidentify people and then cause other violations of people’s rights.”

As for his research methods, he said his study was conducted in a public space where there is no inherent right to privacy. And he said he worked hard to protect the people he photographed. He waited five years to release the data to other researchers and even then, under strict license parameters. He said no names or identities were ever gathered or shared without permission.  

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.