Your Weekly Routine, Recorded

Reading the news last week, I learned that Chinese police are being equipped with camera-integrated eyeglasses…  eyeglasses with face recognition software, and database connectivity. Those glasses enable identification of passersby in real time. While that news may seem distant, I believe the same thing (for all practical purposes) is happening in the US – or more accurately, everywhere on the planet.

About one week before the news of China’s new surveillance program broke, Facebook rolled out some new face recognition features of its own.

Hi Citizen, We’re always working to make Facebook better, so we’re adding more ways to use face recognition besides just suggesting tags. For example, face recognition technology can do things like:

  • Find photos you’re in but haven’t been tagged
  • Help protect you from strangers using your photo
  • Tell people with visual impairments who’s in your photo or video

You control face recognition. This setting is off, but you can turn it on any time, which applies to features we may add later.

-The Facebook Team

In the words of Walt Mossberg, “Um, no thanks, @facebook. I wonder how long this will be opt-in.”

Facebook is not only rolling out a new technology – it is introducing another amendment to our increasingly engineered definition of “normal.” In light of the coming changes, it seems important to consider that internet-connected cameras have become omnipresent over the past decade. Why bother giving eyeglasses to law enforcement when we’re already streaming ourselves on Facebook live, Snapchatting, uploading mealtime to Instagram, and unintentionally including strangers (soon to be appearing as “people you may know”) in our photos?

Curious to learn more about this recently newsworthy technology, I googled “history of face recognition.” The first result led me to a blog post from 2017, which turned out to be marketing for a Los Angeles-based company called FaceFirst. Interestingly, FaceFirst not only creates face recognition software – it also offers “Predictive video analytics: surveillance + insight.” Insight? Read: The amalgamation of security camera footage, video and metadata posted to social media, our credit card histories, the constant stream of location data from our cell phones, our web searches, etc. Distilled.” Remember when Target began accurately predicting pregnancy? Move over Chief John Anderton played by Tom Cruise.

And enter Rob Sherman, Facebook’s Deputy Chief Privacy Officer. In an article responding to concerned Facebook users, Sherman points to some clear advantages of face recognition.

…like helping people securely unlock their mobile devices, log into their bank accounts and make digital payments. It can help people organize their photos and share them with friends. It’s even being used to find missing and kidnapped children and to help officials confirm whether travelers have authentic passports.

Who wants to argue with convenience, and who could possibly argue with a technology used to keep children safe and travelers secure? But apprehensions persist. Sherman continues:

This tension isn’t new. Society often welcomes the benefit of a new innovation while struggling to harness its potential. “Beware the Kodak,” one newspaper intoned in 1888 as inexpensive equipment came onto the market making photography available to the masses. They called it a “new terror for the picnic.” Confronting amateur photography for the first time, society could have restricted this technology – and fundamentally changed the way history was documented for more than a century. Instead, regulators took action on uses that raised concerns — for example, by prohibiting stalking or letting people sue for invasion of privacy — rather than requiring licenses to use “camera technology” or written consent forms before a person could appear in a photo. As a result, people became familiar with these early cameras, social norms evolved, and the world decided that the benefits of personal photography far outweighed the risks.

Big data, you’re terrorizing my picnic! Are regulators considering data uses that raise concern? Or is the tech lobby already so powerful that it controls policy, for better or for worse? What is the cost of allowing our daily routines to be archived and data-mined by software products that were built for addiction and behavior modification? We undoubtedly benefit from a more open and connected world – a world that is more tolerant and understanding – but the same technologies that enable those benefits are being used for a great number of other purposes, and could conceivably be used for a great many more.

So do the advantages of big data and social media outweigh the costs to our ever-connected, increasingly surveilled society? How will face recognition change our systems of commerce, marketing, and legislation? And how will it change our everyday relationships?


Note: Swarthmore College has a robust policy for electronic privacy, and will never use information technology to track people or access confidential information, unless required to do so by law, or in cases of serious concern for the health, well-being, or safety of a community member.