We know more than we can tell.
That one-liner from Michael Polanyi has been waiting half a century for a proper controversy, which it now has with facial recognition. Here’s how he explains it in The Tacit Dimension:
This fact seems obvious enough; but it is not easy to say exactly what it means. Take an example. We know a person’s face, and can recognize it among a thousand others, indeed among a million. Yet we usually cannot tell how we recognize a face we know. So most of this knowledge cannot be put into words.
Polanyi calls that kind of knowledge tacit. The kind we can put into words he calls explicit.
For an example of both at work, consider how, generally, we don’t know how we will end the sentences we begin, or how we began the sentences we are ending—and how the same is true of what we hear or read from other people whose sentences we find meaningful. The explicit survives only as fragments, but the meaning of what was said persists in tacit form.
Likewise, if we are asked to recall and repeat, verbatim, a paragraph of words we have just said or heard, we will find it difficult or impossible to do so, even if we have no trouble saying exactly what was meant. This is because tacit knowing, whether kept to one’s self or told to others, survives the natural human tendency to forget particulars after a few seconds, even when we very clearly understand what we have just said or heard.
Tacit knowledge and short term memory are both features of human knowing and communication, not bugs. Even for people with extreme gifts of memorization (e.g. actors who can learn a whole script in one pass, or mathematicians who can learn pi to 4000 decimals), what matters more than the words or the numbers is their meaning. And that meaning is both more and other than what can be said. It is deeply tacit.
On the other hand—the digital hand—computer knowledge is only explicit, meaning a computer can know only what it can tell. At both knowing and telling, a computer can be far more complete and detailed than a human could ever be. And the more a computer knows, the better it can tell. (To be clear, a computer doesn’t know a damn thing. But it does remember—meaning it retrieves—what’s in its databases, and it does process what it retrieves. At all those activities it is inhumanly capable.)
So, the more a computer learns of explicit facial details, the better it can infer conclusions about that face, including ethnicity, age, emotion, wellness (or lack of it), and much else. Given a base of data about individual faces, and of names associated with those faces, a computer programmed to be adept at facial recognition can also connect faces to names, and say “This is (whomever).”
For all those reasons, computers doing facial recognition are proving useful for countless purposes: unlocking phones, finding missing persons and criminals, aiding investigations, shortening queues at passport portals, reducing fraud (for example at casinos), confirming age (saying somebody is too old or not old enough), finding lost pets (which also have faces). The list is long and getting longer.
Yet many (or perhaps all) of those purposes are at odds with the sense of personal privacy that derives from the tacit ways we know faces, our reliance on short-term memory, and our natural anonymity (literally, namelessness) among strangers. All of those are graces of civilized life in the physical world, and they are threatened by the increasingly widespread use—and uses—of facial recognition by governments, businesses, schools, and each other.
Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren visited the same problem more than 130 years ago, when they became alarmed at the privacy risks suggested by photography, audio recording, and reporting on both via technologies that were far more primitive than those we have today. As a warning to the future, they wrote a landmark Harvard Law Review paper titled The Right to Privacy, which has served as a pole star of good sense ever since. Here’s an excerpt:
Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone” 10 Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life ; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.” For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons ;11 and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer.12 The alleged facts of a somewhat notorious case brought before an inferior tribunal in New York a few months ago, 13 directly involved the consideration of the right of circulating portraits ; and the question whether our law will recognize and protect the right to privacy in this and in other respects must soon come before out courts for consideration.
They also say the “right of the individual to be let alone…is like the right not be assaulted or beaten, the right not be imprisoned, the right not to be maliciously prosecuted, the right not to be defamed.”
To that list today we might also add, “the right not to be reduced to bits” or “the right not to be tracked like an animal—whether anonymously or not.”
But it’s hard to argue for those rights in our digital world, where computers can see, hear, draw and paint exact portraits of everything: every photo we take, every word we write, every spreadsheet we assemble, every database accumulating in our hard drives—plus those of every institution we interact with, and countless ones we don’t (or do without knowing the interaction is there).
Facial recognition by computers is a genie that is not going back in the bottle. And there are no limits to wishes the facial recognition genie can grant the organizations that want to use it, which is why pretty much everything is being done with it. A few examples:
- Facebook’s Deep Face sells facial recognition for many purposes to corporate customers. Examples from that link: “Face Detection & Landmarks…Facial Analysis & Attributes…Facial Expressions & Emotion… Verification, Similarity & Search.” This is non-trivial stuff. Writes Ben Goertzel, “Facebook has now pretty convincingly solved face recognition, via a simple convolutional neural net, dramatically scaled.”
- FaceApp can make a face look older, younger, whatever. It can even swap genders.
- The FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI), involves (says Wikipedia) eleven companies and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).
- Snap has a patent for reading emotions in faces.
- The MORIS™ Multi-Biometric Identification System is “a portable handheld device and identification database system that can scan, recognize and identify individuals based on iris, facial and fingerprint recognition,” and is typically used by law enforcement organizations.
- Casinos in Canada are using facial recognition to “help addicts bar themselves from gaming facilities.” It’s opt-in: “The technology relies on a method of “self-exclusion,” whereby compulsive gamblers volunteer in advance to have their photos banked in the system’s database, in case they ever get the urge to try their luck at a casino again. If that person returns in the future and the facial-recognition software detects them, security will be dispatched to ask the gambler to leave.”
- Cruise ships are boarding passengers faster using facial recognition by computers.
- Australia proposes scanning faces to see if viewers are old enough to look at porn.
Facial recognition systems are also getting better and better at what they do. A November 2018 NIST report on a massive study of facial recognition systems begins,
This report documents performance of face recognition algorithms submitted for evaluation on image datasets maintained at NIST. The algorithms implement one-to-many identification of faces appearing in two-dimensional images.
The primary dataset is comprised of 26.6 million reasonably well-controlled live portrait photos of 12.3 million individuals. Three smaller datasets containing more unconstrained photos are also used: 3.2 million webcam images; 2.5 million photojournalism and amateur photographer photos; and 90 thousand faces cropped from surveillance-style video clips. The report will be useful for comparison of face recognition algorithms, and assessment of absolute capability. The report details recognition accuracy for 127 algorithms from 45 developers, associating performance with participant names. The algorithms are prototypes, submitted in February and June 2018 by research and development laboratories of commercial face recognition suppliers and one university…
The major result of the evaluation is that massive gains in accuracy have been achieved in the last five years (2013-2018) and these far exceed improvements made in the prior period (2010-2013). While the industry gains are broad — at least 28 developers’ algorithms now outperform the most accurate algorithm from late 2013 — there remains a wide range of capabilities. With good quality portrait photos, the most accurate algorithms will find matching entries, when present, in galleries containing 12 million individuals, with error rates below 0.2%
Privacy freaks (me included) would like everyone to be creeped out by this. Yet many people are cool with it to some degree, and not just because they’re acquiescing to the inevitable: they’re relying on it because it makes interaction with machines easier—and they trust it.
A predictable pattern for every new technology is that what can be done will be done—until we see how it goes wrong and try to stop doing that. This has been true of every technology from stone tools to nuclear power and beyond. Unlike many other new technologies, however, it is not hard to imagine ways facial recognition by computers can go wrong, especially when it already has.
- In June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which relies on facial recognition and other biometrics, revealed that photos of people were compromised by a cyberattack on a federal subcontractor.
- In August, researchers at vpnMentor reported a massive data leak in BioStar 2, a widely used “Web-based biometric security smart lock platform” that uses facial recognition and fingerprinting technology to identify users, which was compromised. Notes the report, “Once stolen, fingerprint and facial recognition information cannot be retrieved. An individual will potentially be affected for the rest of their lives.” vpnMentor also had a hard time getting through to company officials, so they could fix the leak.
As organizations should know (but in many cases have trouble learning), the highest risks of data exposure and damage are to—
- the largest data sets,
- the most complex organizations and relationships, and
- the largest variety of existing and imaginable ways that security can be breached
And let’s not discount the scary potentials at the (not very) far ends of technological progress and bad intent. Killer microdrones targeted at faces, anyone?
So it is not surprising that some large companies doing facial recognition go out of their way to keep personal data out of their systems. For example, by making facial recognition work for the company’s customers, but not for the company itself.
Such is the case with Apple’s late model iPhones, which feature FaceID: a personal facial recognition system that lets a person unlock their phone with a glance. Says Apple, “Face ID data doesn’t leave your device and is never backed up to iCloud or anywhere else.”
But assurances such as Apple’s haven’t stopped push-back against all facial recognition. Some examples—
- The Public Voice: “We the undersigned call for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology that enables mass surveillance.”
- Fight for the Future: BanFacialRecognition. Self-explanatory, and with lots of organizational signatories.
- New York Times: “San Francisco, long at the heart of the technology revolution, took a stand against potential abuse on Tuesday by banning the use of facial recognition software by the police and other agencies. The action, which came in an 8-to-1 vote by the Board of Supervisors, makes San Francisco the first major American city to block a tool that many police forces are turning to in the search for both small-time criminal suspects and perpetrators of mass carnage.”
- Also in the Times, Evan Sellinger and Woodrow Hartzhog write, “Stopping this technology from being procured — and its attendant databases from being created — is necessary for protecting civil rights and privacy. But limiting government procurement won’t be enough. We must ban facial recognition in both public and private sectors before we grow so dependent on it that we accept its inevitable harms as necessary for “progress.” Perhaps over time, appropriate policies can be enacted that justify lifting a ban. But we doubt it.”
- Cory Doctorow‘s Why we should ban facial recognition technology everywhere is an “amen” to the Selinger & Hartzhog piece.
- BanFacialRecognition.com lists 37 participating organizations, including EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), Daily Kos, Fight for the Future, MoveOn.org, National Lawyers Guild, Greenpeace and Tor.
- MIT Technology Revew says bans are spreading in the U.S.: “San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts, have outlawed certain uses of facial recognition technology, with Portland, Oregon, potentially soon to follow. That’s just the beginning, according to Mutale Nkonde, a Harvard fellow and AI policy advisor. That trend will soon spread to states, and there will eventually be a federal ban on some uses of the technology, she said at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference.”
My own position on all this is provisional because I’m still learning and there’s a lot to take in. But here goes:
The only entities that should be able to recognize people’s faces are other people. And maybe their pets. But not machines.
But, since the facial recognition genie will never go back in its bottle, I’ll suggest a few rules for entities using computers to do facial recognition. All these are provisional as well:
- People should have their own forms of facial recognition, for example, to unlock phones, sort through old photos, or to show to others the way they would a driving license or a passport (to say, in effect, “See? This is me.”) But, the data they gather for themselves should not be shared with the company providing the facial recognition software (unless it’s just of their own face, and then only for the safest possible diagnostic or service improvement purposes). This, as I understand it, is roughly what Apple does with iPhones.
- Facial recognition used to detect changing facial characteristics (such as emotions, age, or wellness) should be required to forget what they see, right after the job is done, and not use the data gathered for any purpose other than diagnostics or performance improvement.
- For persons having their faces recognized, sharing data for diagnostic or performance improvement purposes should be opt-in, with data anonymized and made as auditable as possible, by individuals and/or their intermediaries.
- For enterprises with systems that know individuals’ (customers’ or consumers’) faces, don’t use those faces to track or find those individuals elsewhere in the online or offline worlds—again, unless those individuals have opted into the practice.
I suspect that Polanyi would agree with those.
But my heart is with Walt Whitman, whose Song of Myself argued against the dehumanizing nature of mechanization at the dawn of the industrial age. Wrote Walt,
Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me.I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face.
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic…
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The barbaric yawps by human hawks say five words, very explicitly:
Get out of my face.
And they yawp those words in spite of the sad fact that obeying them may prove impossible.
[Later bonus links…]