5 September 2018 – A lot of us grew up reading stories by Robert A. Heinlein, who was one of the most Libertarian-leaning of twentieth-century science-fiction writers. When contemplating then-future surveillance technology (which he imagined would be even more intrusive than it actually is today) he wrote (in his 1982 novel Friday): “… there is a moral obligation on each free person to fight back wherever possible … ”
The surveillance technology Heinlein expected to become the most ubiquitous, pervasive, intrusive and literally in-your-face was facial recognition. Back in 1982, he didn’t seem to quite get the picture (pun intended) of how automation, artificial intelligence, and facial recognition could combine to become Big Brother’s all-seeing eyes. Now that we’re at the cusp of that technology being deployed, it’s time for just-us-folks to think about how we should react to it.
An alarm should be set off by an article filed by NBC News journalists Tom Costello and Ethan Sacks on 23 August reporting: “New facial recognition tech catches first impostor at D.C. airport.” Apparently, a Congolese national tried to enter the United States on a flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil through Washington Dulles International Airport on a French passport, and was instantly unmasked by a new facial-recognition system that quickly figured out that his face did not match that of the real holder of the French passport. Authorities figured out he was a Congolese national by finding his real identification papers hidden in his shoe. Why he wanted into the United States; why he tried to use a French passport; and why he was coming in from Brazil are all questions unanswered in the article. The article was about this whiz-bang technology that worked so well on the third day it was deployed.
What makes the story significant is that this time it all worked in real time. Previous applications of facial recognition have worked only after the fact.
The reason this article should set off alarm bells is not that the technology unmasked some jamoke trying to sneak into the country for some unknown, but probably nefarious, purpose. On balance, that was almost certainly (from our viewpoint) a good thing. The alarms should sound, however, to wake us up to think about how we really want to react to this kind of ubiquitous surveillance being deployed.
Do we really want Big Brother watching us?
Joan Quigley, former Assemblywoman from Jersey City, NJ, where she was Majority Conference Leader, chair of Homeland Security, and served on Budget, Health and Economic Development Committees, wrote an op-ed piece appearing in The Jersey Journal on 20 August entitled: “Facial recognition the latest alarm bell for privacy advocates.” In it she points out that “it’s not only crime some don’t want others to see.”
There’s a whole lot of what each of us does that we want to keep private. While we consider it perfectly innocent, it’s just nobody else’s business.
It’s why the stalls in public bathrooms have doors.
People generally object to living in a fishbowl.
So, ubiquitous deployment of facial recognition technology brings with it some good things, and some that are not so good. That argues for a national public debate aimed at developing a consensus regarding where, when and how facial recognition technology should be used.
Framing the Debate
To start with, recognize that facial recognition is already ubiquitous and natural. It’s why Mommy Nature goes through all kinds of machinations to make our faces more-or-less unique. One of the first things babies learn is how to recognize Mom’s face. How could the cave guys have coordinated their hunting parties if nobody could tell Fred from Manny?
Facial recognition technology just extends our natural talent for recognizing our friends by sight to its use by automated systems.
A white paper entitled Top 4 Modern Use Cases of Biometric Technology crossed my desk recently. It was published by security-software firm iTrue. Their stated purpose is to “take biometric technology to the next level by securing all biometric data onto their blockchain platform.”
Because the white paper is clearly a marketing piece, and it is unsigned by the actual author, I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of its conclusions. For example, the four use cases listed in the paper are likely just the four main applications they envision for their technology. They are, however, a reasonable starting point for our public discussion.
The four use cases cited are:
- Border control and airport security
- Company payroll and attendance management
- Financial data and identity protection
- Physical or logical access solutions
This is probably not an exhaustive list, but offhand I can’t think of any important items left off. So, I’ll pretend like it’s a really good, complete list. It may be. It may not be. That should be part of the discussion.
The first item on the list is exactly what the D.C. airport news story was all about, so enough said. That horse has been beaten to death.
About the second item, the white paper says: “Organizations are beginning to invest in biometric technologies to manage employee ID and attendance, since individuals are always carrying their fingerprints, eyes, and faces with them, and these items cannot be lost, stolen, or forgotten.”
In my Mother’s unforgettable New England accent, we say, “Eye-yuh!”
There is, however, one major flaw in the reasoning behind relying on facial recognition. It’s illustrated by the image above. Since time immemorial, folks have worn makeup that could potentially give facial recognition systems ginky fits. They do it for all kinds of innocent reasons. If you’re going to make being able to pass facial recognition tests a prerequisite for doing your job, expect all sorts of pushback.
For example, over the years I’ve known many, many women who wouldn’t want to be seen in public without makeup. What are you going to do? Make your workplace a makeup-free zone? That’ll go over big!
On to number three. How’s your average cosplay enthusiast going to react to not being able to use their credit or debit card to buy gas on their way to an event because the bank’s facial recognition system can’t see through their alien-creature makeup?
Even more seriously, look at the image on the right. This is a transgender person wearing a wig. Really cute isn’t he/she? Do you think your facial recognition software could tell the difference between him and his sister? Does your ACH vendor want to risk trampling his/her rights?
When we come to the fourth item on the list, suppose a Saudi Arabian woman wants to get into her house? Are you going to require her to remove her burka to get through her front door? What about her right to religious freedom? Or, will this become another situation where she can’t function as a human being without being accompanied by a male guardian? We’re already on thin ice when she wants to enter the country through an airport!
I’ve already half formed my own ideas about these issues. I look forward to participating in the national debate.
Heinlein would, of course, delight in every example where facial recognition could be foiled. In Friday, he gleefully pointed out ” … what takes three hours to put on will come off in fifteen minutes of soap and hot water.”