When it comes to new consumer technology, most of us go through four mental stages: interest, amazement, apprehension, and dread. Sometimes that dread turns to terror. Take the Internet: Back in the 90s, its instant, low-cost connectedness was both astonishing and thrilling. People’s imaginations ran wild trying to predict its possibilities. The first cell phones were equally exciting. The idea of having a wireless telephone in your pocket (even if it was the size and weight of a small brick) amazed most people. Time has taught us, however, that technology can be an intrusive double-edged sword.
Today, many people are apprehensive. They realize that cell phones are not just convenient ways to communicate with other people, but also relentless tracking devices; and that the Internet, though invaluable and indispensable, is the most closely scrutinized environment ever conceived. Online, we’re spied on by businesses trying to sell us things and by governments trying to discover if we’re criminals. For real criminals, the Internet is the new Wild West. Millions of them lurk unseen, poised to steal any valuables they can find. Our naïve carelessness makes their job easier, and firewalls, anti-hacking, and anti-virus tools fail to stop or even spot many of them.
The Internet and cell phones have torn holes in our veil of privacy, but a recently arrived new technology called facial recognition software is about to rip it to shreds. Facial recognition is more than a technology; it is a new paradigm that can instantly identify individual people’s faces from still pictures, video recordings, and even live video footage without the person’s knowledge or consent. The technology is impressive, but its implications are disturbing. Most places open to the public including streets, shops, clubs, railway stations, and airports, as well as many public transport vehicles are monitored by video cameras, ostensibly to protect and serve us. Most of us don’t know who is watching, how long they retain the recordings, whether they make copies, and who else can access them. Crucially, we don’t know whether those with access to this data use facial recognition technology to identify us. Apart from those obvious snoopers, most people now have camera phones and soon some will have devices like Google Glass that take pictures without anyone noticing.
The power of facial recognition software makes it both impressive and frightening. Shown two photographs of unfamiliar faces, a human can tell whether or not they are of the same person 97.53% of the time. According to MIT Technology Review, a facial recognition system called DeepFace, currently under development by Facebook, gets the answer right 97.25% of the time. Facebook researchers say that result is 25% better than achieved by previous systems. If that rate of improvement continues, computers will soon be better at recognizing us than our fellow humans. The implications are daunting. Systems with facial recognition capabilities will know who we are by comparing our image with pictures of us in databases and on the Internet. A camera installed in a public place will be able to quickly check our identity and the identity of anyone we meet. It will see where we are, where we go, and what we do.
Technology has dramatically improved most of our lives, but it knows few boundaries. Software that identifies just about everyone’s face undermines our inherent right to privacy. Digital records of minor embarrassing incidents can haunt people forever. Technology companies exist to make money and have little interest in restricting their own activities. So legislators and the courts need to clip their wings to protect the public. That may be starting to happen.
In May 2014, The European Court of Justice took a significant step in that direction. The court upheld what is known as “the right to be forgotten” by restricting the links that search engines (Google in this case) could display in search results in certain circumstances. The specific case involved a Spanish citizen whose house had been repossessed in 1998 to pay an outstanding debt. Lawyers for the Spanish data protection agency (which took the case to the European court on the man’s behalf) argued that it was unfair and served no public purpose that an Internet search of his name today should prominently display links to an online newspaper report of that old case, especially since the debt had long since been repaid. The court agreed.
Not everyone agrees with the court, especially advocates of free speech. Nevertheless, the judgment does draw attention to the fact that technology, whether used by companies to increase profits or governments to snoop, is relentlessly eroding our privacy and anonymity. If current trends continue, soon we may have neither. Big Brother may not be watching us, but his digital sibling certainly is.