Putting brakes on facial recognition & surveillance

How should we think about this super-convenient yet dystopian tech?


America is experiencing cognitive dissonance with facial recognition. The convenience of using our face for the basics - check in, border crossings, unlocking our phones - is fantastic. But, in the land of the free, suddenly everyone has realized that it might mean we’re actually living in just another surveillance society. Maybe we’re more sensitive now, having missed for so long that surveillance capitalism was driving our every digital move without most people having a clue. Maybe it’s the Hong Kong protests where facial recognition has played a key role in the police response while it’s in our face what people do to avoid identification. Maybe it’s that, when it comes down to it, privacy is not dead after all.

Facial recognition technology is deeply concerning and we should be putting the brakes on for a bit. While digital surveillance has grown exponentially, facial recognition hasn’t followed it as far quite yet but it’s close. This doesn’t necessarily mean that an outright ban is the right answer, although there’s certainly a case to be made for that. Brakes could be self-imposed by companies, by local governments or by individual choice.

Like every AI, the validity of its use is incredibly context specific. Facial recognition has spread with very few people realizing that it is a unique technology. Your face is you, readable and identifiable and everywhere in a way that your fingerprint or gait or other forms of identification just isn’t. You’ve even contributed to your biometric identity being easy for anyone, anywhere to use.

Last week, the NYT broke a story about Clearview AI, a startup that has amassed billions of photos scraped from social media. It uses them in an application marketed to law enforcement. This is against the terms and conditions of social networks. Twitter responded with a cease and desist letter but the damage is done — the images have already been scraped. Perhaps the silver lining is that everyone who has ever put up a selfie on Facebook now understands how porous social media really is. Realizing that a social media selfie could end up in a police mugshot is what’s known as “context collapse” and leaves one with a very specific sensation of digital dirtiness.

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