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ID checks were a common response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but they’ll soon be obsolete. You won’t have to show your ID, because you’ll be identified automatically. A security camera will capture your face, and it’ll be matched with your name and a whole lot of other information besides. Welcome to the world of automatic facial recognition. Those who have access to databases of identified photos will have the power to identify us. Yes, it’ll enable some amazing personalized services; but it’ll also enable whole new levels of surveillance. The underlying technologies are being developed today, and there are currently no rules limiting their use.
Walk into a store, and the salesclerks will know your name. The store’s cameras and computers will have figured out your identity, and looked you up in both their store database and a commercial marketing database they’ve subscribed to. They’ll know your name, salary, interests, what sort of sales pitches you’re most vulnerable to, and how profitable a customer you are. Maybe they’ll have read a profile based on your tweets and know what sort of mood you’re in. Maybe they’ll know your political affiliation or sexual identity, both predictable by your social media activity. And they’re going to engage with you accordingly, perhaps by making sure you’re well taken care of or possibly by trying to make you so uncomfortable that you’ll leave.
Walk by a policeman, and she will know your name, address, criminal record, and with whom you routinely are seen. The potential for discrimination is enormous, especially in low-income communities where people are routinely harassed for things like unpaid parking tickets and other minor violations. And in a country where people are arrested for their political views, the use of this technology quickly turns into a nightmare scenario.
The critical technology here is computer face recognition. Traditionally it has been pretty poor, but it’s slowly improving. A computer is now as good as a person. Already Google’s algorithms can accurately match child and adult photos of the same person, and Facebook has an algorithm that works by recognizing hair style, body shape, and body language — and works even when it can’t see faces. And while we humans are pretty much as good at this as we’re ever going to get, computers will continue to improve. Over the next years, they’ll continue to get more accurate, making better matches using even worse photos.
Matching photos with names also requires a database of identified photos, and we have plenty of those too. Driver’s license databases are a gold mine: all shot face forward, in good focus and even light, with accurate identity information attached to each photo. The enormous photo collections of social media and photo archiving sites are another. They contain photos of us from all sorts of angles and in all sorts of lighting conditions, and we helpfully do the identifying step for the companies by tagging ourselves and our friends. Maybe this data will appear on handheld screens. Maybe it’ll be automatically displayed on computer-enhanced glasses. Imagine salesclerks — or politicians — being able to scan a room and instantly see wealthy customers highlighted in green, or policemen seeing people with criminal records highlighted in red.
Science fiction writers have been exploring this future in both books and movies for decades. Ads followed people from billboard to billboard in the movie Minority Report. In John Scalzi’s recent novel Lock In, characters scan each other like the salesclerks I described above.
This is no longer fiction. High-tech billboards can target ads based on the gender of who’s standing in front of them. In 2011, researchers at Carnegie Mellon pointed a camera at a public area on campus and were able to match live video footage with a public database of tagged photos in real time. Already government and commercial authorities have set up facial recognition systems to identify and monitor people at sporting events, music festivals, and even churches. The Dubai police are working on integrating facial recognition into Google Glass, and more US local police forces are using the technology.