Public & Private: The Two Faces of Facial Recognition Technology
Are Anonymous' worries about facial recognition technology justified? Rob Price looks at how we willingly let surveillance into our homes.
Use clear plastic masks. Carry laser pointers. Wear infra-red bobble hats. These are not notes from a surrealist’s diaries, nor are they instructions to actors at the Tate Modern's new installation art centre The Tanks. These are pieces of guidance recently issued by the loose-knit hacktivist collective Anonymous for the avoidance of detection by facial recognition technologies. Decentralised internet hiveminds issuing subversive advice on protecting identity against unwelcome intrusions by intelligent software? A vision of the future that would make sci-fi novelist William Gibson salivate is fast being realised.
Anonymous' guidance was designed at combating a shadowy surveillance network called TrapWire that has recently risen to prominence. Unfortunately—for Anonymous—these shadows are largely self-cast, and belies their ignorance on the matter: TrapWire is, whilst a surveillance system, not capable of facial recognition's strengths lie in algorithm-driven pattern recognition. Anonymous' paranoia is born out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the system's possibilities. There are however far less nebulous and more real technologies out there designed for biometric identification. To give one example, in America, the FBI last year rolled out its own personal facial recognition software to state police across the country from New Mexico to Nebraska. National security is, of course, the justification. These are real issues, requiring real consideration.
But facial recognition technologies are not restricted to under the umbrella of national security, and it is here that it becomes positively cyberpunk. Facebook has been running facial recognition software on all photos upload for the past three years to identify and suggest tags for anyone identified in the images. That this is most likely illegal under EU law doesn't perturb Zuckerberg's digital behemoth (legally, such a technology must be strictly opt-in). Germany is considering legal action to force Facebook to delete the infringing data, in June 2012 the corporation purchased Tel Aviv tech start-up face.com, bringing the previously licensed technology in-house. An unaffiliated project called Facedeals recently launched to capitalise on Facebook's vast facial recognition database. Cameras at selected stores recognise shoppers in order to provide personalised deals, in a truly Minority Report-esque piece of technology. Whilst such third-party projects seem unlikely to gain much traction, they are indicative of what is the dream for the likes of Facebook – being able to effectively monetise their vast collection of user photos. Of course, Facebook is not the only source of facial recognition in the private sector—but it is the most prominent.
So what cause is there for concern? Anonymous damns itself in the campaign against the perils of facial recognition with the admission that one way to avoid detection is simply to tilt your head at an angle greater than fifteen degrees: any more than this and the software isn't capable of registering what it sees as a face. This is, after all, a still-nascent technology. But the disparity between intention of vision and implementation is narrowing all the time. We will not always be protected against it by its own incompetencies.
There is also the question of where these very different implementations of facial recognition technology stand with regard to each other—they seem worlds apart. To the literary-inclined, a government with potential to identify its citizens any time, anywhere, bears all the hallmarks of the Orwellian nightmare state: telescreens and their operators replaced by the faceless CCTV camera and accompanying facial recognition technology. At the same time, that coming day in the private sector when the photo data we’re freely surrendering can be capitalised on are drawing ever nearer.
What unifies the uses of the technology—and their fundamental problem—is the asymmetry of surveillance. It is indicative of this asymmetry, mired in the secretive garb of national security, that Anonymous' suspicions over Trapwire are fed by the likes of Britain's refusal to even confirm or deny its implementation. This is producing an atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia, in which one is not even allowed to know by what means their government watches them. In such conditions, fear and misinformation flourishes. On the part of Facebook, this asymmetry manifests itself in both the manner in which it handles its tax affairs to avoid any meaningful governmental oversight from those users that it profits off, as well as its long-suspected “shadow profiles” that compile data on those who choose not to sign up for the site.
Together, they unite to produce Bentham’s Panopticon writ large; a society defined by surveillance, where one cannot know whether or not they are being tracked at any time, in both the public sphere and the private. All recourse to privacy is lost as the cameras imposed by the state on the streets are invited freely into homes. In the public, this precipitates a fundamental renegotiation of relationship between state and individual, one in which everyone becomes a suspect to be monitored, and democratic recourse risks being sacrificed upon the altar of “national security”. In the private, this is a dehumanising reduction of people to nothing but products, a monetisation of entire lives.
Both possibilities are simultaneously realisable, and both individually and together present mortal threats to the right to privacy and the autonomy of the individual. If one values these rights then there is no choice but to stand up and make oneself heard. If online anarchic collectives aren’t your scene then organisations like Open Rights Group, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in America exist. They lobby for rights in our digital age, to ensure proper recourse in law, to campaign for transparency and open governance. Against the threats we face, these are our greatest tools.
Rob Price volunteered at Open Rights Group in Summer 2012, and has since interned at the British Embassy in Tajikistan. He is currently studying Philosophy and Politics at the University of Exeter. He writes for Exetera, Exeposé and The Witness Politics Journal. You can follow him on Twitter: @robaeprice
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