Facial recognition by machines is out of control. Meaning our control. As individuals, and as a society.
Thanks to ubiquitous surveillance systems, including the ones in our own phones, we can no longer assume we are anonymous in public places or private in private ones.
This became especially clear a few weeks ago when Kashmir Hill (@kashhill) reported in the New York Times that a company called Clearview.ai “invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously, and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.”
If your face has ever appeared anywhere online, it’s a sure bet to assume that you are not faceless to any of these systems. Clearview, Kashmir says, has “a database of more than three billion images” from “Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites ” and “goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.”
Among law enforcement communities, only New Jersey’s has started to back off on using Clearview.
Worse, Clearview is just one company. Laws also take years to catch up with developments in facial recognition, or to get ahead of them, if they ever can. And let’s face it: government interests are highly conflicted here. The need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ need to know all they can is at extreme odds with our need, as human beings, to assume we enjoy at least some freedom from being known by God-knows-what, everywhere we go.
Personal privacy is the heart of civilized life, and beats strongest in democratic societies. It’s not up for “debate” between companies and governments, or political factions. Loss of privacy is a problem that affects each of us, and calls fo0r action by each of us as well.
A generation ago, when the Internet was still new to us, four guys (one of which was me) nailed a document called The Cluetrain Manifesto to a door on the Web. It said,
we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.
Since then their grasp has exceeded our reach. And with facial recognition they have gone too far.
Now it’s time for our reach to exceed their grasp.
Now it’s time, finally, to make them deal with it.
I see three ways, so far. I’m sure ya’ll will think of other and better ones. The Internet is good for that.
First is to use an image like the one above (preferably with a better design) as your avatar, favicon, or other facial expression. (Like I just did for @dsearls on Twitter.) Here’s a favicon we can all use until a better one comes along:
Second, sign the Stop facial recognition by surveillance systems petition I just put up at that link. Two hashtags:
- #GOOMF, for Get Out Of My Face
Third is to stop blaming and complaining. That’s too easy, tends to go nowhere and wastes energy. Instead,
Fourth, develop useful and constructive ideas toward what we can do—each of us, alone and together—to secure, protect and signal our privacy needs and intentions in the world, in ways others can recognize and respect. We have those in the natural world. We don’t yet in the digital one. So let’s invent them.
Fifth is to develop the policies we need to stop the spread of privacy-violating technologies and practices, and to foster development of technologies that enlarge our agency in the digital world—and not just to address the wrongs being committed against us. (Which is all most privacy laws actually do.)