LGBTQ facial recognition software opens door to dangerous possibilities

Jeff Rose

A world where people could be hunted down with facial recognition technology able to determine whether or not they’re part of the LGBTQ community could be right around the corner.

Privacy concerns in the the LGBTQ community have arisen surrounding a recent study by two Stanford University researchers regarding how existing technologies may be able to predict someone’s sexuality based on their facial features. “There is an urgent need for making policymakers, the general public and (LGBTQ) communities aware of the risks that they might be facing already,” the study’s authors wrote. LGBTQ groups and others need to heed the warning the study puts forth and work with policymakers to tackle the issue, rather than denounce
credible science.

Researchers used existing technologies like facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence and computer algorithms to scan over 35,000 pictures of individuals who identified as either heterosexual or homosexual. The results were startling: The algorithm they used could correctly distinguish between heterosexual and gay men 81 percent of the time and between heterosexual and lesbian women 71 percent of the time. 

The potential implications of the study are terrifying. LGBTQ groups, such as GLAAD and Human Rights Campaign, rightly fear that the findings could result in a loss of privacy for the LGBTQ community. But in vilifying the research itself, these groups are missing out on a larger, more pressing takeaway. 

“We used widely available off-the-shelf tools, publicly available data and methods well known to computer vision practitioners. We did not create a privacy-invading tool, but rather showed that basic and widely used methods pose serious privacy threats,” the researchers said. LGBTQ groups should work towards educating the public, especially the LGBTQ community, on how these current and emerging technologies pose risks to privacy. 

If policymakers were to create more protections for human rights and enforce them, it would create a more tolerant world where losing your privacy might not be as much of a risk. 

I hope Austin’s large LGBTQ community, 5.3 percent of its population, the third highest in U.S. metropolitan areas, will recognize the importance of this study and the issue it highlights, and call for Texas policymakers to work toward a more tolerant world. Ultimately, it’s time to face the privacy dangers of facial recognition technology.  

Rose is an english sophomore from The Woodlands. He is a columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jeffroses.