The troubling privacy implications of increasingly common eye tracking technology

By End the Lie

An example of eye tracking research (Image credit: SMI Eye Tracking/Flickr)

An example of eye tracking research (Image credit: SMI Eye Tracking/Flickr)

With eye tracking technology becoming increasingly common in everything from phones to computers, some individuals and groups have raised troubling concerns about the privacy implications involved.

While this technology can be used in applications related to advertising, it most troublingly can be used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies as is the case with the Department of Homeland Security’s “Future Attribute Screening Technology.”

It can also be used by computer systems to detect when people are lying much more accurately than humans can, according to research.

Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and LG Optimus G Pro will reportedly feature basic eye tracking technology and eye tracking can be used for everything from “marketing and usability to software and science,” according to one company marketing eye tracking.

Another company, Eye Tribe, even seeks to put an eye tracker in every smartphone with a focus on allowing the technology to “be built into mobile devices for just a couple of dollars,” according to Tekla Perry of IEEE Spectrum.

Recently, the BBC reported on a new advertisement system created by researchers at Lancaster University which could track the eyes of shoppers and display ads based on what they look at. According to the researchers, the technology could be implemented in stores within five years.

So what’s the big deal? Why should anyone care?

John Villasenor, an electrical engineer professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has pinpointed some of the quite troubling privacy implications of eye tracking.

While Villasenor acknowledges that the technology is not “quite ready for mass-market adoption,” there are some major concerns.

“Once the technology for eye-tracking is in place, it will glean information conveying not only what we read online, but also how we read it,” Villasenor wrote for Future Tense.

“Did our eyes linger for a few seconds on an advertisement that, in the end, we decided not to click on? How do our eyes move as they take in the contents of a page?” Villasenor continued. “Are there certain words, phrases, or topics that we appear to prefer or avoid? In the future, will we be served online ads based not only on what we’ve shopped for, but also on the thoughts reflected in our eye movements?”

Villasenor further discusses the issues surrounding eye tracking in the video embedded below:

Later in his article, Villasenor raised concerns around law enforcement and security applications.

“Researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom have mapped the correlation between blink rates, pupil dilation, and deception,” Villasenor wrote.

“The Department of Homeland Security has been developing a ‘pre-crime’ program aimed at identifying criminals before they act. The DHS program, known as Future Attribute Screening Technology, is designed to analyze images acquired at airport security checkpoints to measure eye movement, position, and gaze (as well as heart rate, respiration, and facial expression) to identify behavior deemed suspicious,” he added.

The picture only gets more troubling when one considers that simply taping over one’s camera on a laptop or smartphone likely won’t thwart eye tracking technology in the future.

Indeed, as Villasenor pointed out, “As evidenced by an Apple patent application, future display screens could include thousands of tiny imaging sensors built into the screen itself.”

That means that future devices could be unusable if the user attempted to completely block any and all eye tracking.

A great deal of information can be learned about people by tracking their eye movement. Andrew Duchowski, of Clemson University’s computer science department, wrote, “eye movement data provide an unobtrusive, online measure of visual and cognitive information processing.”

According to Jay Stanley, the senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, “we could see the technology become a standard part of an analytics toolbox plugged in to every surveillance camera fixed on the public.”

Eye tracking technology has or could be used to detect and analyze cognitive disorders, drug and alcohol use, mental and psychological illness, HIV/AIDS, lying, intelligence and even sexuality, according to Stanley.

While Stanley notes that applying eye tracking technology on the general public via surveillance cameras is currently science fiction, it is “clearly not far-future sci-fi.”

“And regardless of how much of the above ever comes to pass, it’s yet another reminder of the huge wave of privacy-invading technology that is headed our way, and of our need to get ready for that,” Stanley concludes.

Similarly, Villasenor concludes, “Today, when we read something online, our thoughts are still our own. We should enjoy it while it lasts.”

Given how rapidly this type of technology can advance when money is put into research and development, coupled with how quickly prices can decrease, a future where eye tracking technology is commonplace might not be all that far off.

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2 Responses to The troubling privacy implications of increasingly common eye tracking technology

  1. Anonymous May 7, 2013 at 11:39 AM

    This is why we need “dumb” phones. Then again if this tech is put in surveillance cams and in “google glass” there will be no escape!

  2. Hustle May 7, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    I wonder if sunglasses would be a viable option?


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